My daughter has been rightfully urging me to pay more attention to what is going on with all the violent protests rocking France, where tens of thousands have taken to the streets, hundreds have been arrested, and several people have died and billions of euros are being lost. French President Emmanuel Macron has managed to accomplish an amazing feat in his country: he’s united the far left and far right into a single political cause. Granted, that cause is more or less “we hate Macron,” but hey, unity is unity, right?
Imagine the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street coming together in 2012 against President Obama, or Antifa and the Alt-Right the White Nationalists, um, “Fa?” (have we decided what we’re calling the Right Wing Racists today?) uniting against Donald Trump next year. That’s the situation we have in France right now.
In some ways, the protests started as typical leftist, working class dissatisfaction with rising prices – in this specific case, cab drivers began protesting a new fuel tax that has been raising gas prices, and the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) associated with French cabbies (and maybe Coldplay enthusiasts) have become the symbol of the protesters. Other left-leaning groups, such as university students (definitely Coldplay enthusiasts), then hopped on board to procrastinate from their term papers…I mean express their own anger at various Macron policies.
The protests and the issues that they reflect, however, are not as simple as a left-wing outcry. Many of the people angry at the fuel price hike live in rural France, where there are not elaborate public transportation systems for people who can’t afford to pay for gas (and where the urban appealing Macron has not been popular). And the extra fuel tax itself is meant to curb carbon emissions. Furthermore, the far right, smelling blood in the political water and hoping to capitalize on the discontent in the next election, has jumped on board as well (with the government, in turn, trying, somewhat disingenuously, to label the discontent as another example of right wing agitation sweeping the globe).
The underlying anger of protesters is focused on everything from the general state of the French economy to issues of immigration and asylum to personal dislike for Macron. Facebook, again demonstrating the use of social media in political activism, has allowed various groups to organize with different agendas, tones and politics, united by opposition to the status quo.
***Warning! Political Science Digression: You Should Expect These By Now***
Finally, France’s political system tends to contribute to its history of widespread public protest, and to the effectiveness of such political tactics, and the particulars of French politics have allowed the two ends of the political spectrum to unite in this instance.
France has a two round electoral system is a bit of a hybrid of the “first past the post” (what is the post?! Could someone please tell me), winner-take-all system of the US and the proportional system of countries like Germany. Each local legislative election is only for one seat (“single member districts” in the political science jargon) and anyone who gets over 50% of the vote in the first round is automatically elected to that seat in the French Parliament. If no one gets a majority the first round, the most popular candidates move on to the second round, and whoever gets the most votes in this round is automatically elected, majority or not.
Because it has some but not all of the features of a “first past the post” system, Duverger’s law kind of works in Duverger’s home country but not completely; although there are usually two main parties at work in French politics, third parties have an incentive to stick around, since they can end up winning second round elections even if they aren’t the most popular, or even second most popular, parties in the first round.
Macron created such a third party, En Marche! (“On the Move!”) [Yes, the punctuation is part of the name. No, the party is not actually that exciting] in 2016, and used it to win the presidency the following year. Macron’s most prominent rival, right-wing leader Marine “just as racist as my dad, but I don’t look like a rage-filled old white man so that’s cool, right?” Le Pen, has also benefited from this system to remain relevant.
Large scale protesting is common in France, drawing upon its revolutionary history (now with 30% less guillotining!). Meanwhile, the electoral system leads to the representation of radical left and right parties in the French National Assembly: Macron’s En Marche! (can we use our indoor voices, please?) and Le Pen’s National Rally (because National Front sounds too scary nowadays but let’s keep the burning flame logo because reasons) are among nine significant political parties in the French parliament. The representation of such a wide range of viewpoints in government, including far left and far right parties, means that protests get translated into policies in ways that you generally don’t see in the US.
It also means that politics is complicated, and political expediency sometimes makes for strange bedfellows, as Macron is finding out right now. The government’s recent concessions have failed to pacify the widespread discontent, and it’s hard to come up with a set of policies that will satisfy such a political and socially diverse set of malcontent French citizens. If things continue the way they are going now, Macron may see himself and his party Moving! out of power come the next election, although which side of the political spectrum might take its place is anyone’s guess.