Antoine Bristielle is an associate professor of social sciences, doctoral student at Sciences Po Grenoble.
Tristan Guerra is a doctoral student at Sciences Po Grenoble.
When a democratic regime is going through an acute crisis, the public authorities need more than usual broad popular support in order to establish the legitimacy of decisions which can temporarily restrict the freedoms of citizens. The results of the barometer of political confidence, published on a regular basis by CEVIPOF, confirmed that in these times of health emergency, the President of the Republic as well as the government did not manage to generate such significant confidence within of the population than what can be seen in our European neighbors.
How to explain this French exception?
The first interpretations of this distrust were soon heard. “Severe”, “bougons”, “distrustful”, even even “irresponsible”, deprecative adjectives rain down to describe the critical attitude of the French. Conversely, among our neighbors, the coronavirus crisis has generated a significant revival of popularity for the governments in place, which would demonstrate their “maturity”, their “discernment”, and their ability to rally behind the flag to form the sacred union against the virus. Without questioning the shortcomings of the French executive in its management of the crisis, it is indeed destabilizing to note that heads of state or government such as Boris Johnson, Giuseppe Conte or even, to a lesser extent, Donald Trump , arouse more support than Emmanuel Macron, when their management of the crisis is sometimes even more hazardous.
Political support in trompe-l’oeil
To understand the low confidence that the French president is currently suffering from, it must be remembered that his election in 2017 rests on a particularly reduced social base: the 66% of votes obtained in the second round of the presidential election is explained more by the rejection of Marine Le Pen only by the adhesion to the project of the candidate of En Marche. The base of real support for Emmanuel Macron is on the contrary much better captured in the 24% of votes obtained in the first round of the presidential election in 2017 and in the 22% in the European elections in 2019.
Political trust keeps above all a partisan aspect.
Political trust, above all, retains a partisan aspect. Rather than the psychologizing and essentialist considerations on the traits of the French, the best explanation for confidence in the executive is also the simplest: LREM sympathizers have confidence in the government, unlike those who support the oppositions. In a survey by the IFOP carried out after the last speech by the president, barely 22% of voters close to Insubordinate France and 20% of those of the National Rally declared that they had confidence in the government to deal effectively with the coronavirus, when confidence manifested itself in almost 90% of the sympathizers of the Republic on the march.
Partisan polarization is not a phenomenon peculiar to France, it can even manifest itself even more intensely in other countries. In the United States, the vast majority of Republicans approve of Donald Trump’s action, against only 7% of Democrats. In the UK, Boris Johnson’s surge in popularity rose within his own camp, with the satisfaction rate among the Conservatives dropping from 56% in July 2019 to 97% in mid-April 2020. There also, only 34% of Labor approved of its action. The “rallying under the flag” so often prophesied in times of major crises translates in reality by the gathering of the whole of its camp, but very little beyond. This is also true of parliamentary regimes ruled by broad coalitions which represent a substantial part of the electorate. Unlike France, building a coalition allows the German and Italian governments to count on more support. In Italy, a country still bruised by the epidemic, the government, which comes from a coalition made up of the center-left party and a populist party, enjoys support which reaches 56%. Admittedly, in the case of Germany, the strong increase in the popularity of the chancellor manifested itself outside her own party, but it was with the voters of the two parties of the grand coalition that the support was most important. In these different types of regimes, the voting systems oblige governments to rest on a broader social base, which in turn gives them greater popularity, even in times of crisis.
Distrust of the president remains the logical expression of the functioning of the political system.
The weak support enjoyed by Emmanuel Macron thus largely comes from the political system of the Fifth Republic, which has become a “disappointing machine” (Emiliano Grossman and Nicolas Sauger, Why do we hate our policies so much?, Presses de Sciences Po, 2017). The focus on the presidential election, the cornerstone of the regime, produces disproportionate expectations of a president, however limited in his room for maneuver – despite all the “Jupiterian” rhetoric he can use. This followed a decline in popularity quickly after taking office and the decline in his electoral heart in the first round. Even today, in the era of the coronavirus, this distrust of the president remains the logical expression of the functioning of the political system.
Trust undermined by the play of institutions
In ordinary times, the institutions of the Fifth Republic mask this reality by allowing the head of state to govern with a reduced electoral base. However, the situation becomes more complicated during periods of intense crisis, where exceptional measures require and require the approval of a large part of the population in order to be accepted. However, these calls for union broke against the partisan wall: the distrust that existed before manifested itself in the same way during the crisis. This low level of confidence can lead incumbent rulers not to adopt the most effective public policies given the situation, for fear of destroying the little political capital that they have managed to build up in recent weeks. It is a real paradox for a regime that was designed from its inception to face the most tumultuous periods of history. The current health crisis thus reveals the shortcomings of the political system in its capacity to ensure the legitimacy which the government would need to overcome it.
A proportional dose is needed during the legislative elections to correct the effects of the majority voting system.
This situation can lead to two types of political response. The first, which seems to be envisaged by the executive, involves an enlargement of the government to include personalities from right and left parties. This strategy also seems to be gaining public opinion, as shown by recent polls calling for the establishment of a government of national unity. An answer which seems however complicated to envisage in the long term as the institutional game is not favorable to this kind of compromise.
Consequently, a second, more ambitious option involves a far-reaching reform of the institutional system where the constitution of a majority would require bringing together a broader political base, but which would in return provide it with stronger legitimacy, including in historic moments which underline the limits of the regime in place. Without touching the method of electing the President of the Republic, it seems essential that legislative elections take place on the same day as the presidential election in order to refocus the place of Parliament in political life. This requires the introduction of a proportional dose during the legislative elections to correct the effects of the majority voting system. The balance of power resulting from the first round of the legislative and presidential elections would thus force the parties to really negotiate between the two rounds in order to bring out a political majority in the second round. A government more representative of real political balances would be formed, reducing the general distrust of the electorate. This solution would combine institutional stability and better democratic representativeness. From this point of view, the Great Confinement could be the moment to initiate the great transformations that French democracy needs.