France’s Institutional System Favours Rebellion Against Its Leader

Yves here. This article describes some key elements of France’s political system that have stoked the gilet jaunes movement.

By André Sapir, a Senior Fellow at Bruegel, University Professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles, and Research Fellow of the London-based Centre for Economic Policy Research. Cross posted from Bruegel; based on an opinion piece published in Le Monde

Outside France, many economists tend to ascribe the yellow vest movement to the fact that the French are rebellious and that France is politically unmanageable. But what is special about France is not its people but its institutional system, which differs vastly from those of other European countries. Three dimensions seem to me particularly relevant in the current context.

The first concerns the political system. Under the current constitution, power is far more personalised than elsewhere. France is not a parliamentary democracy like Britain or Germany. Sure, all three have a lower and an upper chamber, but political parties play a fundamentally different role in France.

There, the dominant party is a creation of the president – like the RPR was a creation of Jacques Chirac, the Socialist party was created by François Mitterrand, and La République en Marche is the creation of Emmanuel Macron, around whom the party entirely revolves.

Elsewhere, the history of the major political parties is clearly distinct from the persona of their current leader. The CDU in Germany or the Conservative party in Britain are not the creation of Angela Merkel or Theresa May.

The second French peculiarity concerns the role of intermediate institutions, and in particular labour unions. Among the large European countries, France is where the rate of union membership is the lowest. In 2015, it was 36% in Italy, 25% in Britain, 18% in Germany, 14% in Spain, 12% in Poland and barely 8% in France. And the current practice further weakens the role of labour unions in the management of social conflicts.

The third concerns the organisation of the country’s territory. Metropolitan France is the largest country of the European Union by land mass, with 550,000 km2, compared with 499,000 km2 in Spain, 349,000 km2 in Germany, 304,000 km2 in Poland, 294,000 km2 in Italy and 242,000 km2 in Britain. Among these six countries, France is also the one (just behind Spain) with the lowest population density, with 119 inhabitants per square kilometre against 236 in Germany and 275 in Britain.

Despite this situation, France is the most centralised of the six biggest EU countries. According to the OECD, the share of sub-national entities in total public expenditure is only 20% in France against 50% in Spain, 47% in Germany, 32% in Poland, 30% in Italy and 26% in Britain.

The conclusion is incontestable. France is the European country where there is the most rebellion against its leader, because his power is the most personalised and the most centralised among the six big EU countries.

The personalisation of power, the weakness of Parliament – with a dominant party dominated by a single person – and the weak role of intermediate bodies like labour unions all combine to create a situation where citizens have no recourse to make their voice heard other than taking to the streets and demanding the resignation of the president.

The large size of the country, its low population density and its lack of decentralisation create a situation where citizens outside the big cities feel abandoned by Paris, which does not provide sufficient local public services to ensure territorial cohesion. These are the citizens who march in Paris and in other big cities, demanding a better life.

Many French economists rightly favour reforming France’s social model towards greater flexibility and greater security, like in Scandinavian countries. But they should remember that these countries have very high unionisation rates (67% in Denmark and Sweden) and extensive territorial decentralisation of public expenditures (with sub-national entities accounting for 65% of such expenditures in Denmark and 50% in Sweden). Attempting to copy the Scandinavian social system without changing the French institutional system would not be very productive.

France is not unmanageable. It simply needs a better governance. Why not start with a greater decentralisation of public expenditures? A reasonable objective could be to increase the share of sub-national entities in public expenditures from 20% to 30% by 2025, and further to 40% by 2030. But this cannot be done without a substantial institutional reform to ensure that decentralised public expenditures are both efficient and of good quality.

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52 comments

    1. Redlife2017

      “the ritual diversionary smear of anti-Semitism”.

      Colonel Smithers – you have quite the way with words. That made my day. And explains so much that I see in the world.

      Reply
      1. David

        I think I used the phrase “ritual smear” a couple of days ago, and was pulled up (I think jokingly) for it. The good Colonel, as one would expect from a military man, has usefully added “diversionary.”
        I made a longish comment this morning (CET) which seems to be stuck in the inner tubes. I’ve noticed that longer comments of mine (say over 15 lines) are often delayed, and sometimes never come out. I don’t know whether anyone else has had this problem, but it leads me to think that perhaps shorter posts may be easier to get through the interweb thingy. If it doesn’t emerge, I’ll post it again later in bite sized chunks.

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        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you, David.

          I should have attributed to you.

          It would be great to also read what you think about Marouane “Alexandre” Benalla.

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          1. David

            For those interested, here’s Wikipedia on the origins of the Benalla scandal last year, though it hasn’t been updated with all the other scandals since (I’m losing count). Even after Benalla was kicked out of the Elysée, where he had a vaguely-defined role in Macron’s security, he seems to have retained, or been given back, his diplomatic passports, and to have started a new career as a kind of fixer with African heads of state and unsavoury oligarchs. The Senate has just come out with a scathing report into the whole affair, and demanded that Benalla be prosecuted for giving false evidence to them. He’s currently in prison, along with his mucker Vincent Crase.
            It’s a story very much about personal power and its abuse. The French system encourages Presidents to appoint trusties to key positions in the Elysée, and such people often have a very vague role, or series of overlapping roles, sometimes involving business interests as well as political ones. The most worrying allegation, which seems to be at least partly true, is that Benalla and Crase were involved in plans to set up some kind of alternative security service, separate from the service which officially protects the President, and under Macron’s personal control. People have been drawing parallels with the Service d’Action Civique, which was De Gaulle’s private army with strong links with the underworld, involved a series of shady incidents including kidnapping and killings. Just what Macron needs at the moment.

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        2. PlutoniumKun

          Yes, I’ve found long comments, especially with links, often get delayed by a few hours. But in my experience they almost all appear eventually (one or two have completely vanished). It often is a bit embarrassing as I find my post just repeats things others have said more eloquently in the meanwhile.

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        3. Oregoncharles

          It takes longer for the NSA to read and file long posts – and you’re posting from France, a “country of interest.”

          Reply
  1. The Rev Kev

    There is a solution to this problem and the French would not have far to look. It is the Swiss Canton system which has devolved powers with local autonomy. I have seen this system in Switzerland and it seems to work fine. Here is an outline of this system-

    https://liberty-intl.org/2000/03/the-swiss-cantonal-system-a-model-democracy/

    France, with its system of Departments, would be able to adapt this system without too much change as the basic structure is already there. Here is a page and map showing these French Departments-

    http://www.map-france.com/departments/

    The problem? Because the powers have devolved – what some countries call “democracy” – it means that local concerns come first. So ideas about sending troops to Syria or Africa or other corners of the world would never get passed. And this is something that the French elite would never be able to tolerate. Still, worth a shot.

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  2. PlutoniumKun

    I’d be interested in hearing the inputs of some of our French residents and experts here, but while I don’t dispute the broad thrust of this article, I’d always been under the impression that local and regional government in France has a lot of power and influence (if perhaps also dependent on central government for much of its funding). In comparison to countries I’m more familiar with (Ireland, UK and the US), France always seems to me to have a very active level of local mayors and the result is quite visible in smaller towns, villages and municipalities – very well run local facilities, beautifully designed and finished public spaces (squares, parks, sports grounds) and so on.

    I’ve always suspected that the reality of French power is more decentralised than appears in the raw data, in comparison to the UK (for example), where local power is in reality almost entirely dependent upon the whims and ambitious of London.

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    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, PK.

      I think your final paragraph is correct. Like you, I would base that on observations of how active mayors are, local they are and well turned out public spaces often are.

      There have been waves of decentralisation since the 1980s. One manifestation is how many prominent politicians are keen to be mayors. My family and I visited Bordeaux for the first time in the mid-1980s. We returned two years ago and were pleasantly surprised. Alain Juppe has overseen a renaissance.

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      1. PlutoniumKun

        Thanks CS, I’ve only been to Bordeaux once, but I was very impressed, the city centre is a wonderful place to just walk around – traffic well and truly controlled, pedestrians at the core of everything, as it should be.

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          1. PlutoniumKun

            Its not just the city, there is so much within easy reach – gorgeous beaches to one side, and the glories of the Dordogne to the west. I must admit to having found myself looking enviously at estate agent (realtor) windows when I was visiting some of the little villages west of Bordeaux, the prices are inflated due to its popularity (with English and Dutch in particular I think), but retiring there would certainly be no hardship.

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      2. LucB

        France has very high central taxation, little local spending, and large central funding of local goods/services/infrastructure.
        Bordeaux used to look horrible, especially the waterfront, and is now lovely. Rather than “Alain Juppe has overseen a renaissance”, I would have written “Alain Juppe leveraged his political power and connections to secure central funding for a renaissance”. The citizens and visitors of Bordeaux are happy with it (I am from there), but no one ever consulted the people of the rest of the country, who largely paid for it.

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        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you, Luc.

          Fair point.

          From my almost quarterly visits to France, it looks like, say, the mayors of Deauville, Chantilly, La Rochelle, Cognac and Flassans sur Issole and whoever runs Ile de Re have done similar…

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      1. Ignacio

        According to the link the bulk of those are the conseillers municipaux who are precisely the closest to the people physically and in day-by-day basis. That means that people has a lot to say in municipal issues and are both involved and aware of municipal management. I wish we had that in Spain!

        Although the article somehow oversells the centralization idea it is also true that the Président de la République is an institution that concentrates more power that any Prime Minister in other european countries and my intuition is that this is a good explanation on how the protests are organized.

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    2. Deadsheep

      As a French guy, there is a strong feeling that Paris and the rest of France are two different countries, with different people and different opinion, but that Paris is deciding for the remaining of this (big) country. While local politics do have some effect (in particular for small infrastructure like you mentioned, or for culture), there is a strong pressure from the top on many topics such as :
      – transportation, with the cheap local lines of train or buses being discarded with no replacement, in profit for the high-speed TGV going from Paris to the regions and back,
      – agriculture, mostly dependent on European subsides and therefore on government oversight,
      – energy, with most of French power grid in the hand of ERDF (a few regions do keep an independent energy grid and production means).
      – tourism, with in many places Parisian buying expensive housing for their weekend/holidays, raising the price of land out of reach from most local people,
      – a general feeling that region are perceived culturaly inferior to Paris : the extermination of local languages toward French during the first part ot the XXth century, a tendency to consider local accent as funny at best, or a proof of being retarded at worst (I am not slightly exaggerating here, is you have a strong accent from Alsace, Brittany or so, you can say goodbye to a political career outside of your region).

      And probably more, but that’s what on the top of my head.
      So while there is still some local power, most big stuff (new highways, train lines, power lines, airport, etc.) directly depends on Paris will, with no participation from local actors (except for receiving various form of corruption, but I don’t think this is a French particularity).

      We are used to say that our Fifth Republic was custom build for and by De Gaulle to give him the most possible powers, and since it has not really changed.

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      1. Altandmain

        In some ways this is similar then to the US.

        The big cities (which tend to be Democratic) versus the rural areas (Republicans). The US may not have a high speed rail system like the TGV, but it is cities that want it and rural areas that opposes it.

        Tourism is another big issue – an example being how New Yorkers are displacing working class areas in places such as Long Island.

        It seems to me that the real divide in both nations is those that have done well economically versus those that suffer under the status quo.

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  3. Frenchguy

    [reposting as I’m not sure the first one went in]

    Yeah, I think your impression is right. Comparing share of expenditure of local government in total public spending can be misleading as France has high public social spending (if I remember correctly, Germany’s pensions for example are not considered public spending) and high level of transfers in general (taxes/subsidies) which bloat the denominator.

    If you want another perspective, the share of central government employment in total public employment is slightly below 40% compared to ~55% in the UK and above 60% in Italy. (see https://ec.europa.eu/social/BlobServlet?docId=19208&langId=en). Local governments have ~1.9 millions employees vs 2.4 in central government (o/w 1 millions are teachers) and 1.2 millions in health services. Finally, if we want to compare money that is not earmarked and can be more targeted then let’s take just investment spending: central government spent 27 bn€ in 2017 vs 43 bn€ for local governments (see https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/2381404). Whatever, there is no right number and I don’t think it’s possible to estimate the exact amount of “centralisation”. Though we have regularly the case of powerful national figures (Juppé, Colomb, Aubry…) that prefer to leave Paris and go back to their hometown as mayor as they feel they have more power here, I don’t recall many examples like that in the UK.

    It’s true that there is a tendency in France to present the state as a powerful and singular force with Paris as its symbol. I just want to remind people that the reason we have this “legend” around is because France is not as natural a country as it seems. Bretons are Irish, Provencal are Italians, Alsacians are German, Lillois are Dutch and try to find someone who calls himself “parisian” in Paris, that’s actually quite hard, everyone’s from somewhere else… The myth exists precisely because local “poleis” still exists and would breakaway without it.

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  4. Hayek's Heelbiter

    One of the master strokes of the Founding Fathers after the failure of the Articles of Confederation was the U.S. tertiary government structure (federal, state, county) with each having jurisdiction over different (and hopefully non-overlapping, though when they do, strife often results) domains of responsibility and taxation. I think generally this has been a triumph (civil rights, the coming together during two world wars, the Superbowl [:)]) with the occasional tragedy (local school funding, with kids in Greenwich getting iPads and kids in Mississippi often not even getting text books).

    Nearly all Europeans I’ve spoken with, and I imagine the French especially, have extreme difficulty understanding this concept, coming from a society where, as Sapir emphasizes, everything is centralized from the top down.

    I often wonder if the EU experiment would have been more successful if they had instituted from the beginning at least EU and country (state) level governments with delegation of different powers.

    If the UK had retained control over immigration, its fishing stocks, allowed to continue using, well, the English measurement system, etc. would Brexit have happened?

    What Sapir suggests in the final paragraph for the governance of France does seem to be an approach very similar to what the Founding Fathers set up in the beginning of the American experiment (which would never have happened without the support of the French Foreign Minister, Comte de Vergennes).

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    1. Ape

      First EU countries hold unbelievably more power than us states. The EU is a true federation and the us is a unitary state with strong provinces, to push a point.

      Second the us system isn’t a stroke of genius from mythological founding fathers. The US constition basically failed by Tom Jeffersons administration and was completely redone under Andy Jackson.

      It’s a system that evolved under the constraints of its geographical constraints. Despite relentless attempts to centralize, the city layout made that impossible. It didn’t fall apart like South America because of better penetration of the interior due to geography and better capitalization die to proximity to Europe.

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      1. Hayek's Heelbiter

        I suppose I do fall under the sway of inculcation from first grade onwards about the brilliance of the Founding Fathers and evolution of the U.S. Manifest Destiny.

        Though the EU might well be a federation, my feeling from almost all the Brits I talk to outside the London Bubble is that they definitely do NOT perceive the EU as a Federation, but as a patronizing and intrusive rule-setter.

        Hence the Brexit vote.

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        1. Ape

          Yeah, they say they “feel”. That and two bits will get ya thrown out of starbucks.

          Seriously, I’d suggest a little research here. In fact, the member states of the EU have independent militaries, civil services and court systems. Anything touching national competences requires either a supermajority or consensus. US states lost all these powers by the late 19th century.

          Facts are facts.

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  5. David

    Well, up to a point, but both the description and the analysis seem to me a bit misguided, or at least over-simplified.
    Yes, power is personal in France, but probably no more so than in a number of Southern European states. The RPR was created by Chirac essentially to succeed the Gaullists, but was itself disbanded as part of an attempt about fifteen years ago to create a “single party of the Right” (the UMP) , which would avoid right-wing candidates being picked off by the National Front. It’s since changed its name again, and is a kind of bone over which right-wing politicians fight. But there’s much more continuity of personnel and policy than you might expect from the endless changes of name and leader. In addition, all French parties are effectively coalitions, and sometimes even have named and organised tendencies within them. For what it’s worth, the Socialist Party is Mitterrand’s creation from the post-Suez wreckage of the SFIO and other small groups, as a way of producing a non-Communist party of the Left capable of winning elections. He was the leader from 1971 and President from 1981, but the party was always an amalgam of different groups, and under his successors, notably Hollande, it became little more than a collection of warring states. Thus, both the main parties were essentially attempts to create unified, and (by French standards) disciplined parties capable of taking and holding power. Macron’s party is quite different: genuinely created from more or less nothing, with no discernible history or ideology, and largely a product of the media, with a smiling face in an empty suit in charge. But that’s a long way from the historical norm.
    But I don’t think this bothers the French particularly. If you ask them, most French people even today will say “I vote for the Left” or “I vote for the Right”, rather than naming particular parties. They may vote for candidates associated with the main groups rather than part of them, or even individuals, often grouped together in the election results as “divers gauche” or “divers droite.” What does annoy people is the spoils system, where politicians bring people from their own parties into positions of power, and where failed or defeated politicians are always found a lucrative sinecure somewhere by their parties. But in a system where power is so personalised, you won’t survive unless you surround yourself with people in your Cabinet and in senior positions, on whom you can rely totally.
    There’s been a lot of talk about the decline of intermediate institutions, and it’s true that trades union membership and influence has declined a lot, although partly this is due to rivalry between the unions themselves who rarely agree on anything. But this is itself a consequence of the decline of the mass political parties to which the unions were once linked, and which (especially the Communists) functioned as a kind of alternative state in some areas. The Church has largely lost its intermediary social role also, except in some rural areas, and in the absence of state services, which have withdrawn from many poor areas, the new intermediaries are criminal gangs and religious extremists, often working together. Much of French social life has historically been organised around “associations” both professional and cultural, but neoliberal policies and the destruction of traditional communities are putting them in danger as well.
    The issue of centralisation is complicated, and not reducible to the kind of statistics quoted above. Much of France is locally administered by fiercely independent local authorities, even if the funding is mostly national. Far from being over-centralised, the French system is regularly criticised for having too many costly layers of local decision-making, and there are plans afoot to reduce this. For example, France has a national education system, run from Paris, and a national police force. But in reality, the actual management of schools, for example, is done at the level of the commune, the department or the region, depending on the school. As the Colonel says, there has been a lot of decentralisation since the 1980 anyway. Worth noting here is that most French politicians began as local mayors, and many retain powerful local connections. It’s not unknown for a Minister to also be mayor of a commune and member of a local government assembly. Juppé, mentioned above, has always had Bordeaux as his power-base. Sarko, even when Interior Minister, remained the President of the department of the Hauts-de-Seine (the richest in the country) which was his power-base and money spigot. This naturally counteracts tendencies towards centralisation;
    I won’t go on, but suffice it to say that the real problem is the hollowing-out of the French countryside and small towns, and the concentration of power and decision-making in the hands of a comfortable elite which is almost entirely urban (largely Parisian), educated in the same way at the same institutions, and linked by marriage, social contacts and professional experiences, and very happy with neoliberal dogma. Now that mass political parties are gone, the old mechanism for making grievances known and getting problems sorted out has largely disappeared. hence, among other things, the gilets jaunes.

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    1. ChristopherJ

      thank you, David.

      I don’t believe the gjs can succeed. Too much is at stake.

      At the end of their shifts, the flics have to take off their uniforms and go home. Are there examples yet of reluctance on their part to shoot and gas their fellow countrymen and women?

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  6. notabanker

    Quite surprised at the labour union numbers given France has some of the most progressive labour laws in Europe. I guess that makes some sense given less needs for them, just not what I would have thought.

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    1. Frenchguy

      One of the reasons why union membership is so low is that deal between unions and firms automatically apply to everyone. In general, you get few specific benefit from being in a union since every advantage the bosses give will be for everyone. So unions are now mainly restricted to those who want to have responsabilities in them and to specific industries where collective action is still useful (blocking a plant will get people running to negotiate much quicker than blocking a bank branche…).

      https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/economic-policy-reforms-2012/coverage-rates-of-collective-bargaining-agreements-and-trade-union-density-rates_growth-2012-graph64-en#page1

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    2. Ignacio

      Although less unionized, workers migth be more willing to mobilize in support of strikes when necessary. Something similar occurs in Spain. I would appreciate very much to learn on factors addressing factors affecting unionization rates.

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      1. Ignacio

        And it migth be that that low unionization rates resuls in more strikes because unions have less negotiating leverage

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    3. Frenchguy

      [1st comment got eaten by the system, might turn up…]

      Thing is, in France collective bargaining covers all employees even if not unionized. Not the only reason but in the private sector (ex certain industries) there are few incentives to officially join a union unless you want to have responsabilities in it…

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      1. PlutoniumKun

        Its similar in Ireland, where unions represent all workers in national collective bargaining agreements, even those non-unionised. Not that they ever get thanked for it.

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        1. InternetMarine

          …and so we get a health system which the State has mandated that a group of Management and Unions put together and keep going as partners.

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    4. James E Keenan

      I, too, am surprised at the low unionization rate reported for France. To the extent that news about the class struggle ever reaches the layperson in the U.S., the most frequent note in that news is “the French are on strike again”. How do we reconcile low unionization with what appears to be a lot of labor militancy?

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  7. hemeantwell

    There, the dominant party is a creation of the president – like the RPR was a creation of Jacques Chirac, the Socialist party was created by François Mitterrand, and La République en Marche is the creation of Emmanuel Macron, around whom the party entirely revolves.

    Would someone please confirm this? If there is any truth to it, does it reflect a developing trend? I believe it might be true of Melenchon’s party as well, but going back to Mitterand? And what is the explanation? How did party organization become so personalized, factions so prepared to submit to a leading figure?

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    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      This is kind of poly-sci debate territory. The short explanation.

      -no proper primary system. The duopoly which exists effectively doesn’t have an opportunity to reform a party. Sanders and Obama both challenged the Clinton ruling caste. If there was no primary process, what happens? The Sanders slate wins 15% of the seats in the House with Clinton’s 35%. Dennis Kucinich joins them to take a small lead. Sanders gets a couple of committees, and Pelosi is Speaker. The Jeb slate and the new Trump slate snipe at each other but usually stick to complaining about Pelosi and those liberals. Yes, I presented a hypothetical, but this is how countries with slightly different systems work it out.
      -De Gaulle. He wasn’t a random guy. Conservative politicians looking to make a name for themselves who aren’t in the inner circle have to form alternate parties to make a name in expectation for De Gaulle’s death or retirement. De Gaulle leaving public life is the equivalent of the Death of the King. When the King dies, very often his friends are already dead or close to it. A primary process creates an organization for successors to be anointed, auditioned, or found if there is a need. Right now, there are like 47 Democrats running for President. De Gaulle is Washington. Neither are conquerors, but they are war heroes. They were tyrants or kings. In 1,000 years, leaders of the 42nd Gallic Republic will invoke De Gaulle in that Texas sized area once described by Julius Caesar.
      -the Fifth Republic isn’t that old. The GOP was founded in the 1850’s and the Democrats are older. It still took the U.S. four score and seven years to get into a real conflict about slavery, and that was over 150 years ago. The U.S. and the UK are very old countries with a relative level of stability. There are people in France who remember the Third Republic. No one alive in the U.S. remembers Lincoln.

      Party organization didn’t become subservient as much as it doesn’t exist. Believe it or not, Putin is very concerned with political structures because the difference between him and a benevolent czar is what happens when he exits public life. He’s worried about open conflict or the U.S. supporting Yeltsin 2.0.

      Macron for example represents a combination of the SDs imploding giving strength to Melenchon, who I believe is an SD defector (prior to Mitterand, politicos switched between the SDs and Reds all the time) over the rightward tilt in the 00’s. Macron’s electoral base is an alliance between wealthier and more urban conservative types and non-whites who don’t have a history of the Communists being a political force along with loyal SD voters who can’t abide the Reds for one reason or another (probably older voters). LePen is a very real threat to non-whites in France or at least her father would be, so they placed their bets on an existing defense. Macron can’t transfer that support. What if LePen doesn’t run? How does the alliance hold up? Melenchon finds a couple of really dynamic young, black communists to be standard bearers. How does the next election look? In the mean time, Macron isn’t doing anything for non-whites, so that vote he previously received will probably be in a situation where the Communists look better, the SDs (whatever the French call it) reform, or they have to make the same decision, or even sit it out.

      Duopolies in legislatures almost always happen in the absence of a third rail (many European parties are just Catholics and Protestants agreeing on kicking the poor but not being able to do it at the same time or place) because you can’t organize otherwise, but the U.S. and UK political party experience is extreme or very old and established compared to the rest of the world.

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  8. Will Eizlini

    it might be worthwhile to mention that general strikes can work quite well in france because almost literally all roads lead to paris. if you block paris the country grinds to a halt

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  9. Ape

    So like the US in being a very 19th century system, but for a smaller country without alternate power bases forcing a federal distribution. It’s a threat to the US system, such an evolution because modern technology makes the US look more like France as more centralization begins to scale.

    But still given its size would a rebellion of the margins be more destabilizing in a US context?

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  10. Oregoncharles

    The US also has a presidential system, at least as Imperial as in France, but rarely goes in for the kind of rebellions France does. The real difference might be the party system; they’re much more permanent and less personalized here. I fear our union membership is similar, and declining badly. Our population density is probably similar. Given the sheer size of the US, it would be almost impossible for it to be as centralized as France.

    From my great distance, I’m still inclined to credit French rebelliousness mainly to culture and history – they have a much more recent history of rebellion, and theirs were domestic, not for independence.

    Incidentally, I wonder why the population density in France is so much lower than in their neighbors. Is that Napoleon’s doing?

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  11. DanP

    As a resident in France for over 16 years, I would say that this analysis covers only a rather limited angle in the concerns I hear of in discussions with French friends and colleagues.

    For sure, there is a feeling that the presidency has too much power and that balances supposed to be in place particularly with the senate are not working. But the principle complaint of the gilet jaunes, nuit debout before them, and generally most working class and lower middle class French people, is all about liberalism.

    This is the country that had a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty with its liberal principles, rejected it, and then had it thrust upon them by their elite. So yes, true that such power is resented, but because it has been used to impose liberalism, which has been consistently rejected for decades.

    Take this conclusion from a recent article:

    “Les Gilets Jaunes ont bien compris que le pouvoir tente de nous faire croire que rien n’est possible en dehors du système libéral actuel. Que les seules alternatives sont celles de régimes autoritaires et réactionnaires. Mais nous savons que tout cela n’est qu’une illusion qui permet de maintenir leurs privilèges.”

    https://paris-luttes.info/parce-que-c-est-notre-victoire-11688?lang=fr

    And my poor translation:

    “The gilet jaunes understand that the powers that be are trying to make us believe that nothing is possible outside the current liberal system; that the only alternatives to today’s system are authoritian or reactionary regimes. But we know that this is nothing but an illusion that allows them to maintain their privileges.”

    My take on it is that the French rid themselves of a bunch of privileged parasites once before, and have a keen sense for parasite bullshit. Hence, liberalism has long been perceived as a neo-aristocratic scam, and subsequently why they will not submit to liberal governance. Why should they?

    It’s no surprise that Macron storming in thinking he has the right to make liberal reforms, just because he was the least worst choice to the Front National, leads to this kind of national disruption.

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  12. Acacia

    Readers of french might be interested in the following:

    https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2019/02/16/chevenement-il-faut-retrouver-l-esprit-de-la-ve-republique-le-sens-de-l-interet-public_5424241_823448.html

    This is Jean-Pierre Chevènement on the current crisis in France, which he sees also as a crisis for Europe. Like Sapir, he points to specific problems of centralization, and he interrogates the current proposals for institutional reform.

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  13. Olivier

    The idea that France is not decentralized is pure hogwash. On the contrary, particularly since the fatidic wave of decentralization wanted by Mitterrand it is full of local roitelets who think they sit next to God, do as they please in defiance of the law and rage and rant at the hated “parisian elites” whenever they are stymied, which happens less and less since most préfets have been gelded. For those who read french wand want a fresh example of how grotesque it can get, I suggest the affair of the Beynac bypass.

    Indeed the patrimony is a favorite target of those local despots. France is slowly regressing to 70s-era officially sanctioned vandalism. And it’s not just small towns and their local roosters. In Paris stones are falling from some churches but the municipality, which has an obligation to maintain churches, cynically claims not to have enough money, even as it spends millions on utter frivolities like Paris Plage or open air rock concerts on the city’s dime. And the Culture Ministry, which is the guardian of last resort of monuments, does nothing.

    I could go on but the long and the short is that french political culture is in complete meltdown, the country is not governed anymore and the rule of law is increasingly a fantasy.

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  14. Edward

    Does France share some of the problems the U.S. is experiencing? Our political system is influenced by the money of the rich and T.V. advertisements influence election outcomes. Journalism has collapsed and the public is lied to constantly. If the U.S. has Sanders and Britain has Corbyn, will France also have someone similar? Are the Yellow Vest protests similar to the Occupy movement?

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    1. Olivier

      In France there is public funding of electoral campaigns, so the political system is less vulnerable to purchase. Thus there is for instance no french AIPAC (not that there isn’t a jewish and zionist lobby, it just has to work differently).

      You can find here a diagram of who owns what in french media (NB: Patrick Drahi is an israeli citizen and the media he controls are pretty important) but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I would say that with magazines like Causeur and L’Incorrect France still has a relatively healthy alternative press if you care to look for it.

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