There was a time when political crises in the liberal democracies originated among the elites that were the only stakeholders of power. Since then, things have changed in a tumultuous fashion as crisis is no longer internal but proceeds directly from the people with the elites unable to control it.
France is a dramatic example of a crisis of governance that reflects the disappearance of the traditional parties. President Macron’s party, the Republique en March, is an empty container that is removed from the nation at large and fails in assuring the power of decision at the top levels of government. The defunct Fifth Republic at least permitted decision-making, albeit without paying much attention to the rights of representation. Under President Macron, the chasm between the governing elite and the people has deepened, leading to the revolt of the “yellow vests” that has wrecked many French towns.
Americans should take notice of what happens when power is centered in one leader in the absence of a strong party behind him and most importantly of the checks and balances of a liberal democracy. In France, there is nobody who is able to mediate between the president and the “yellow vests.” The end of the crisis will come when both the president and the mass of civil protesters exhaust their energy. Such an outcome is more likely when the protesters do not follow a leader who can accept and conduct a meaningful dialogue while the elites cannot rely on a functional party.
When there are no dialogue and no parties, it is mighty difficult to mend the fixtures emerging in the society and to trust the political undertakings for the long term future. This is a situation that reigns not just in France, but also in England and Italy. Germany, a nation that conforms to rigid principles, runs a lesser risk as long as its economic power conditions the political leadership.
One of the consequences of the present crisis is that the time to act in a democratic regime gets shorter and shorter under the implacable pressure of the citizenry. Decision making thus becomes even more difficult. Worse still, in France the decisions of the government are under increasing fire. While the opposition to government policies was well below 50 percent of the electorate in the recent past, over 70 percent now supports the protest of the “yellow vests” against a president who was elected only 18 months ago.
At present, Emmanuel Macron is a lonely leader who in normal circumstances should be able to count upon the majority of the National Assembly. The parliament, however, is weakened to the point of not being able to take on the role of mediator with the protesters. The sad reality of the state of affairs in France is that the protesters are not looking for a leader who could translate their protest into new social and economic programs. The malaise has many causes, from the inequality of wages to a fiscal policy that benefits mainly the rich. The French provinces, once the social and economic inspiration of reforms, feel estranged from the central power. Something has got to give in France and President Macron has to find the courage to enact the reforms that so far he has only promised.