France’s Authoritarian Drift

The system allows for a mighty president. Macron is leaning into those powers.

French and foreign pundits keep warning against what they call la dérive autoritaire,” the authoritarian drift of President Emmanuel Macron and his government. The warnings have been so insistent in recent months that Macron, clearly worried, recently made the rounds of the media to deny the charge. The accusation, he told reporters, was a “huge lie,” adding, “We are not Turkey or Hungary, after all.”

Bien évidemment, France is neither of those illiberal countries. But this hardly makes it exempt from the authoritarian temptation. The term “authoritarian” has been used so frequently and variously in present-day France that, as George Orwell observed about the use of “fascism” in wartime England, it runs the danger of becoming meaningless. Yet as Orwell also noted of the many faces of “fascism,” the loose accusations of “authoritarianism” in France nevertheless point to something real. Its buried meaning is less in the individual character of its political leaders than in the constitutional character of the Fifth Republic.

In the early winter of 2020, Macron’s government promulgated a series of controversial laws. According to their defenders, the bills would guard France against the gathering storm of medical and ideological threats. The government claimed that these menaces, whether new variants of the coronavirus or of Islamism, not only posed a clear and present danger to the republic, but even shared a comparably infectious nature. As the hardline interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, promised, the law against radical Islamism would provide a “cure” for a nation “sickened” by the disease of radical Islamism.

The vaunted virtue of this cure was, as the bill’s name said, to assist in “the reinforcement of republican principles.” It would defend France against those groups—all of which happen to be Islamist—opposed to the nation’s secular identity. Among its provisions were greater scrutiny of Islamist websites, greater stringency in the transparency of funding of Islamic organizations, broadened constraints on the option to homeschool children, and widened prohibitions on polygamy. According to its authors, the bill seeks to arm the government with “the means to combat those who, by distorting a religion, seek to undermine the values of the Republic.”

The proximate cause of this particular bill was a series of Islamist-inspired attacks in France last year. While a number of Anglo-American observers have noted that these attacks were mostly the work of foreigners, they neglect that most instances of Islamist terrorism are the work of French citizens. Since 2012, 15 of the 22 terrorist acts in France have been carried out by Islamist radicals from France.

But this particular law is not a parliamentary one-off. It reflects Macron’s apparent conviction that republican principles can be reinforced through the republic’s already vast powers of surveillance and prohibition. These powers apply not only to suspected terrorists, but to citizens suspected of having participated in protest marches.

This seems to have been the logic of a “global security” law that Darmanin unveiled shortly after the law concerning Islamism. Designed “to protect those who protect us,” the bill sought to reassure the national gendarmerie that the government had their back. Given the pressures placed on the police since late 2018—from the massive Gilets Jaunes movement to recent anti-lockdown demonstrations—this legislative initiative was perhaps inevitable.

Yet it soon became apparent that the law was indefensible. This was particularly true for one of its elements, Article 24, which penalized the taking and/or disseminating of images of police actions “with the intent of harming” those photographed. Remarkably, this prohibition seemed to apply to journalists as well as participants.

Despite the national lockdown, large protests took place in Paris and other cities, placing the government on the defensive. Soon after, the government hastily withdrew the proposed law after a video appeared showing several police officers brutally beating a black music producer, Michel Zelcer, in the foyer of a building in the chic 17th Arrondissement of Paris. Had it not been for these images, the police officers’ harm of an innocent citizen would almost surely have gone unpunished.

For those who had been listening, Macron’s drift toward authoritarian rule was no surprise: As a candidate, he had telegraphed it and justified it. He vowed to be the “Jupiterian” ruler he believed the French wanted, imposing what he called a “vertical” approach to governance. This seemed to mean that directives were issued from the top and that debate, much less dissent, never issued from below. Declaring in a 2018 interview that he “completely shouldered the ‘verticality’ of power,” Macron added that he detested “the constant exercise of explaining the logic behind a decision.”

With the ineluctability of a Greek tragedy, the Gilets Jaunes protests erupted across France soon after this declaration, eventually forcing Macron to travel the country in order to participate in the series of grands débats he had organized. While these “debates” temporarily changed the surface of his presidency, they did little to change its substance. The fact that Jupiter still calls the shots was made clear when, ignoring the recommendations of his scientific advisers, Macron decided in mid-February to slowly lift the lockdown. That he was forced to reimpose confinement in several regions following spikes in the infection rate will not make the man—who is praised by his ministers as the “president-epidemiologist”—any less vertical.

Yet the fault does not lie exclusively with Macron. As the commentators Natacha Polony and Franck Dedieu recently observed, Macron’s “blindingly obvious” authoritarian tendencies have been enabled, even encouraged, by the nature of what they call “the original sin of the Fifth Republic”—namely, the primacy of the executive branch.

The constitution of the Fifth Republic, as conceived in 1958 by its founder, Charles de Gaulle, emphasizes the role of president as the nation’s “arbitrator.” So great is the emphasis, in fact, that the nation’s arbitrator all too often morphs into the nation’s autocrat. This was the case not only with the conservative De Gaulle, but also with the socialist François Mitterrand, who went from denouncing the authoritarian nature of Gaullist rule to exercising it upon becoming president two decades later.

In response to his critics in 1958, De Gaulle observed that the machinery of government depends on the men who run it. Or, more accurately, on the man who runs it. For the moment, though, that man does not inspire great confidence. When not manipulating the machinery of the lockdown, Macron has been busy manipulating the machinery for next year’s presidential election. He seems dead set on creating a sequel to his first campaign in 2017, when he became the default choice for most voters in the election’s second round against Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right party Rassemblement National.

Polls indicate that Macron and Le Pen will again win the most support of any candidates in the first round of voting, meaning they alone will face off in the decisive second round. As such, Macron has sought to present 2022 as a contest for the very survival of the republic. When reproached by critics for his focus on Le Pen, Macron replied, rather disingenuously, that it was “those who voted for her, and not me, who put her there.”

Regardless of who wins next year’s election, the Fifth Republic will probably survive. The question that Macron should be considering is what kind of republic it will be.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston. His latest book is The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas.