Robert Tombs

A choice of revolutions

A Le Pen victory would be the worst crisis for half a century. Even if she doesn’t, the system is in deep trouble

A choice of revolutions
Text settings

Is France on the brink of a political revolution? Already, four established candidates for the presidency — two former presidents and two former prime ministers — have backed out or been rejected by the voters, and another, François Fillon, is on the ropes. The campaign is being taken over by outsiders, principally the Front National’s Marine Le Pen and a youthful former banker, Emmanuel Macron, while the Socialists have chosen an eccentric radical, Benoît Hamon. Should we welcome a shake-up in the cradle of European revolutions? What kind of shake-up might it be — socialist (the least likely), liberal with Macron or nationalist with Le Pen? Or can the outsiders still be beaten by an electoral system designed to keep them out of power?

France in its modern history has worn out five monarchies, five republics and 16 constitutions — and two of this year’s presidential hopefuls are demanding a 17th. Its people are still more ready than most to go into the streets. It was, and is, a country in which rhetoric and visions play a prominent part in politics. In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the romantic revolutionary Enjolras waxes lyrical from the top of his barricade about the glorious time when ‘thinkers will be completely free, believers completely equal, no more hatred, fraternity in the workshop and the school, jobs and rights for all’. But Enjolras gets killed, and his wish list is still at the top of the agenda nearly two centuries on.

Listen to Robert Tombs discuss the French election with Amandine Alexandre:

This is because France fluctuates between short spasms of change and longer periods of immobility. It has developed institutional barriers and tacit compromises to hold things steady. Its current Fifth Republic is a ‘republican monarchy’, with parliament downgraded and a powerful president supposed to unite the nation — a task sadly beyond most politicians. Another, less noticed, institution goes back even further than Enjolras’s fictional death on the barricades: the two-round ballot, designed in the 1820s to prevent hotheads like him from winning elections. It gives voters and politicians a second chance, not so much to reconsider their own choices as to react against the choices of others. In the first round you vote for the person you want; in the second you vote against the person you fear.

This evolved historically into what was called ‘republican discipline’: in the first round there could be a range of competing candidates of all shades, but in the second round all loyal republicans, from the mildest liberal to the reddest communist, would vote for the candidate best placed to beat the enemy of the republic — usually a royalist or authoritarian nationalist. The apparition of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National in the 1970s, combining traditionalist conservatives, embittered nationalists and nostalgic fascists, met the same response. When Le Pen shocked France by getting through to the second round of the 2002 presidential election, he was crushed by Jacques Chirac, who got 82 per cent of the vote. Good republicans rallied, including those on the far left: ‘Better a crook than a fascist’ said one slogan. The crucial question in this election is whether the republican reflex still operates. If not, Marine Le Pen could win.

Consider the long-term consequences of the two-round voting system. Many British commentators — and indeed some in France — call periodically for a ‘French Thatcher’ to sweep away institutional barriers to economic dynamism. Nicolas Sarkozy was one who briefly claimed this mantle. The latest is Emmanuel Macron, a former economics minister of Blairite tinge in François Hollande’s socialist government. But Margaret Thatcher could never have been elected in a French-style second round. The British system not only can but regularly does give power to a united minority over a divided majority. Mrs Thatcher could carry out a peaceful revolution without ever having the clear support of a majority of voters. In a French-style system, she and her parliamentary supporters would inevitably have been defeated in second-round ballots by a combination of Labour and the Liberals: Jim Callaghan would have been triumphantly re-elected.

In short, precisely because of its turbulent political history, France has developed a series of barriers against radical change. A leading sociologist, Michel Crozier, described it in 1970 as a ‘société bloquée’ — a ‘stalemate society’. Of course, much in France does change: but the price of political stability is that certain fundamental rights and privileges remain untouched. Advantageous retirement rights and pensions. Certain influential professions. Farmers, sheltered by the Common Agricultural Policy. People in permanent employment, protected by laws penalising redundancy and limiting hours of work. The public sector — in French le service public, significantly in the singular — is the core of this system: schools, public hospitals, railways, universities, local government, the post office. All are arms of the state. Think of le service public as the NHS multiplied by five. The politics of its workforce, combining a real sense of public service with a jealous defence of rights and privileges, explains why France is the most anti-capitalist country in Europe.

There are benefits. Many British people have happy memories of French hospitals, schools or trains. But one does not need very right-wing views to see the accumulating disadvantages. The highest taxes in the developed world, especially on businesses. Chronic unemployment, worst among the young and ethnic minorities. Slow growth, including among small companies afraid of the burden of regulation incurred by getting too big. Crumbling infrastructure. Anyone who arrives at the Gare du Nord must see that something is amiss. People in France do too, and have done for years. Even in the 1980s President Mitterrand lamented national ‘moroseness’. Bookshops have long been piled high with works by economists, politicians and academics warning that France was in accelerating decline. Young people emigrate, over 200,000 to London alone.

On top of this chronic malaise has come the tension between republican secularism and Islam, sparked off three decades ago by a row about girls wearing headscarves in a provincial secondary school. It is a fraught mixture of cultural difference, social deprivation and historic mistrust, but none can doubt its brooding presence, hugely inflamed by a series of terrorist attacks. Had I risked forgetting this, I would have been dramatically reminded a few weeks ago when in a quiet street in Paris I walked into a 25-man military patrol in full combat gear.

None of these observations is unique to France. Characteristic of France, however, is the seeming inability of the political system to do much about them, even over many years. Here we come back to the ‘stalemate society’ problem. Even limited reforms — by British standards minor tinkering — with the education system or the labour market have caused huge and prolonged student demonstrations and sit-ins, and damaging strikes by public-sector unions. They often produce complicated half-measures that create a destabilising sense of unresolved problems and leave continuing tensions.

A ‘French Thatcher’ — assuming that there is one, however diluted — faces not only the electoral barrier but a wider ideological polarisation than that of Britain in the 1980s. Then a large minority, even at times a majority, felt that something radical had to be done, and accepted that this included weakening the trade unions and increasing the freedom of the market. There is little sign that any such consensus exists in France, where both left and right are deeply suspicious of economic liberalism. Marine Le Pen thunders against free trade and ‘unfair’ competition. The very word ‘liberal’ has long been a political kiss of death: we shall see whether Macron is immune. So there is widespread dissatisfaction, but no accepted solution.

The party structure, always weak in France, has struggled to produce agreed strategies or new generations of politicians. Party funding problems have produced endless financial scandals, in which Sarkozy is now again entangled. Many politicians have roots in local government, and in one way that’s a strength. But it also creates what the French call fiefs — feudal domains — which can provide impregnable political bases for big beasts and questionable sources of funds. Not untypical is Alain Juppé, mayor of the great city of Bordeaux — and, despite his advanced age and conviction for corruption, until recently regarded as the leading presidential candidate. He has memorably remarked that only death ends a political career in France: he might still prove it again.

Parties struggle to clear out the dead wood and choose new people. It is telling that the charismatic Macron, astonishingly young for French politics at 39, has never held elected office and must stand as an independent, having created his own party. However, the recent introduction of party primaries, which started with the Socialists, has unexpectedly let the frustrated grass roots see off a succession of ‘big-beast’ candidates including Juppé, Sarkozy and the former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls, whose defeat marks the Corbynisation of the Socialist party under the evidently unelectable Benoît Hamon.

So is France in crisis? It remains one of the world’s richest, most powerful and most active states, which should make us beware excessive pessimism. The historian Emile Chabal has noted that the French often talk up crisis as ‘a key catalyst’ for change. But this time the crisis is more than just rhetoric: many voters really have lost faith in the established parties and see change as coming from outside the system. The main embodiment of disillusion is Marine Le Pen. Her Front National continues to grow in rust-belt regions and those with high levels of immigration, largely by attracting disaffected working-class voters. It is probably France’s largest party, supported by nearly a third of the electorate.

Le Pen has laboured since taking over from her father in 2011 to convince voters that the Front National, though still radical, is no longer ‘anti-republican’, and indeed is the staunchest upholder of republican secularism against Islamic encroachment. The message is that voting for her is not a betrayal of the republican heritage so central to France’s self-image.

She has added to her nationalist agenda vehement denunciation of the European Union as a foreign capitalist plot. Nearly the whole French establishment unquestioningly accepts the EU as France’s historic destiny. The Front National’s denunciation makes support for it a shibboleth of progressive values. The country is more polarised than Britain: more people strongly support the EU, but also more people strongly reject it. So while Brexit provoked some asperity in private and a few polite demonstrations in public, any attempt at a French exit would cause mayhem.

Le Pen will surely win through to the second round of the election, and it is quite possible that she will head the poll in the first round on 23 April. Fillon was supposed to be able to rally moderate conservative and moderate Socialist voters and beat her in the second round. But a tawdry financial scandal (which many suspect was leaked by a vengeful and still ambitious Sarkozy) has damaged and may eliminate him. He fought back by producing his diffident Welsh-born wife Penelope — accused of being paid for a fake job — at a rally where she tearfully held his hand while supporters shouted ‘Je suis Penelope!’ Polls indicate that two thirds of conservative voters still support him. How many of the other third might defect to Le Pen?

Brexit and Trump have created a sense that the unthinkable is possible, which could further weaken the taboo against voting for her. But it will mobilise her opponents too. I cannot believe that enough moderate voters will stay away from the second-round poll to let ‘the fascists’ win. ‘Republican discipline’ should still rally support for whoever polls best against Le Pen, which at the moment looks likely to be Macron.

Nevertheless, few now rule out a Le Pen victory completely, and if Macron’s campaign runs into serious trouble, all bets are off. Every new scandal or terrorist incident plays into her hands. If she did become president, France would face a genuine crisis, the worst for half a century. There would certainly be strikes and violent demonstrations by those who would see themselves as defending the republic against fascism. How she could form a viable government or win a majority in parliament is unclear. We would see a conflict between the Fifth Republic’s powerful president and its parliament under a constitutional system that one liberal critic has called dangerous even in the hands of a saint. The consequences for the euro, the EU, western security and Britain’s relations with one of its closest allies would be dire.

More likely is that a very different kind of outsider, Emmanuel Macron, will win in the second round. This would gain him goodwill and authority — for a time. But his, and France’s, problems would not be over. He is committed to liberal economic reforms likely to arouse widespread and even turbulent opposition. He is a one-man band, and established politicians of right and left have an interest in his failure. He himself will have won only because people who dislike him have seen him as a barrier to Le Pen. She will probably get a higher vote than ever and will continue working inexorably towards the next election. A French friend recently said to me, ‘I am not voting for anyone. I’m only voting against.’ This is the depressing mantra of French politics today.

Youll Have To Excuse Michael He Left His Echo Chamber This Morning
‘You’ll have to excuse Michael — he left his echo chamber this morning.’
Robert Tombs is professor of French history at St John’s College, Cambridge. He discusses the fate of the Fifth Republic in this week’s Spectator podcast, available at He is the author of The English and Their History, and, with his wife, Isabelle, That Sweet Enemy: the British and the French from the Sun King to the Present.