BY DANIEL WOODBURN
Photo by Antoine Schibler on Unsplash
On its surface France may appear to be a country in turmoil, even decline, rocked by regular protests and an increasingly polarized political landscape. Popular discourse of increasing state authoritarianism and declining public services would seemingly place it in the company of the United States under President Trump, and would even conjure comparisons with Turkey under an increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan. A street poll would likely yield vitriol directed at President Macron, the likes of which will have been witnessed in Turkey over the course of the 2023 General Election and President Erdoğan’s re-election bid. So how is it that France’s overall FSI score is the best it has been since before the 2008 financial crisis, continuing a long-term trend of gradual progress, no less?
Populist, President Macron is not, let alone popular. Statistically, he is as close to universally disliked as any French president has ever been during France’s fifth Republic, dating back to 1958. Yet his awful approval ratings belie a underlying, if reluctant recognition that his unpopular policies may be necessary, the most recent and explosive of which was the increase of the full-pension retirement age from 62 to 64, prompting protracted and often violent protests. President Macron did himself no favors by bypassing a parliamentary vote and forcing the reform through with a little-used presidential decree mechanism, adding further fuel to the fire and cries for a new Republic, underscored by a new constitution that strips the president of many of his or her far-reaching powers. But Macron seems to have few aspirations to ingratiate himself with the French public, especially now that he is in his second (and last) 5-year term. His approach and demeanor are criticized as haughty, even “Jupitarian” by the French public. He set about implementing his ambitious presidential project upon being elected in 2017, targeting the streamlining of the French state and a business-centric approach to making France a competitive alternative to the likes of Germany for investors. In the early days of his presidency, this entailed simplifying France’s complex labor code, cutting red tape, and stripping certain public servants’ generous benefits, prompting protests from two of the country’s largest unions, and growing solidarity amongst the general public with Macron’s apparent victims. The zenith came in 2018, when an environmentally-minded reform increasing fuel tax sparked the yellow vest movement, typified by mass protests drawing hundreds of thousands onto the streets and lasting well into 2019.
Examples of unpopular reforms abound, and each one adds to the paradox of a steadily improving FSI score. Despite the air of general pessimism that currently reigns over France, the country is in surprisingly good shape. Where other countries may have been unable to fully recover from the financial crash, letting public services and the standard of living steadily erode, the past six years have seen a trend towards French pragmatism and efficiency, both domestically and on the world stage. Macron’s streamlining of France’s cumbersome and generous welfare system has predictably been met with anger and resistance.  However, the French continue to benefit from greater state largesse than the vast majority of the country’s OECD counterparts: in 2019, France spent almost double the OECD average on social protection expenditures (23.9% vs 13.3%), almost in joint-first place with Finland – the FSI’s perennial least fragile state – on 24%.  As of June 2023, unemployment is at a historical low: the figure of 7.1% hadn’t been seen in over five decades, and as a statistic is made all the more remarkable in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, France is fighting tooth and nail to resist a trend befalling its cross-channel neighbor – the United Kingdom – which is to say of dwindling significance and influence on the world stage, and has stepped into the breach left by the UK following Brexit and its departure from the European Union. In contrast, Macron has been at pains to demonstrate that he is interested in cooperation first and foremost, and that a European Union led by France and Germany in tandem is a European Union capable of rivalling the likes of Russia, China and the United States, and resisting incursions, whatever forms these take.
It follows that on the world stage, Macron has attempted to balance European independence with France’s various import-related needs involving the great powers, such as gas from Russia, technological goods from China, and security guarantees from the United States. This balancing act, which in its extreme would translate to reckless nationalistic protectionism, has pushed Macron, whether willingly or not, to vie with Germany for leadership within Europe – a mantle that both countries have historically shown themselves reluctant to take on. In adopting this role, Macron has repeatedly argued that Europe is itself a great power that needs a unified approach to contending with Russia, China and US global influence. This is particularly visible in his repeated reference to “European values.” Until 2022, it was also evident in France’s leadership in the Sahel, and the significant resources it committed to the counterinsurgency efforts across the region. In the face of a European reluctance to contribute, as well as increasing anti-French sentiments across the Sahel, France wound down its near-decade-long military operation in the Sahel in November 2022, and all but left Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger to face the growing violent extremist threats by themselves, leaving a breach for the Russian mercenary outfit, Wagner, to step in and fill. This arguably represented a key turning point in France’s geopolitical priorities, away from Françafrique – France’s traditional sphere of influence in Francophone sub-Saharan Africa – and towards China and Russia. Where other European Union countries’ ties to Russia were laid bare following the invasion, it is telling that France’s external intervention score on the FSI has steadily dropped from 2.0 in 2016 – just before Macron’s presidency, when accusations of Russian meddling in democratic countries’ votes were rife – to a historical low of 0.5 in the 2023 edition of the Index.
Improvements on the FSI overall do not negate the real challenges faced by France, particularly the Group Grievance score, which has hovered between 5.6 and 7.0 for the duration of the FSI’s 18-year history, landing at 6.4 in 2023, reflecting elevated levels of social stress and discontent. However, statistically, the French state is functioning as well as it ever has, even as protests continue to gain momentum with each new controversial reform. In a democracy, an unpopular president need not translate into a bad State Legitimacy score, because unlike under King Louis XIV, “L’Etat n’est pas moi”; the president is not the State. Macron has just under four years of his second term left. The odds are stacked against him to improve on his low approval ratings, especially as he feels he has little to lose and will press on as best he can with his unpopular reform agenda.
The irony of France – and its FSI score – being in good health is that the massive unpopularity of the reforms at the root of this good health has strengthened the hand of previously fringe political actors, chiefly Marine le Pen and her far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) party. Mr. Macron won his first presidential run-off against Ms. le Pen comfortably in 2017, however the gap narrowed significantly in their 2022 rematch. Among other things, Mr. Macron is accused of gutting the center ground of the French political landscape, leading to the rising popularity of figures like Ms. le Pen and the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mr. Mélenchon, whose abrasive and no-nonsense personality have endeared him to many young voters, may not run again in 2027, when he will be 75. Ms. Le Pen, however, has overseen a dramatic improvement in the fortunes of a party that was previously deemed too radical, including through a rebrand that has made the Rassemblement National’s image far more palatable to voters. Distaste for Macron was not sufficiently pronounced for a Le Pen victory in 2022, though she significantly narrowed the gap from a 34 percentage point margin to 18 in the 2017 and 2022 run-offs. Come 2027, Macron will be unable to run for a third term, and the traditional two-party hegemony of the left-wing Socialist and right-wing Republican parties appear to be a thing of the past. A paradox of Macron’s success in reforming France and attempting to prepare the European Union for the rigors of a three-way global struggle between Russia, the US and China, is that he appears to have widened the path to a potential Marine le Pen victory. Though she stepped down as leader of the party in November 2022, barring an act of God, she will be the Rassemblement National’s candidate for the 2027 presidential elections. Under her presidency, France could rapidly turn to a more populist, less technocratic form of governance, and turn in on itself rather than try to show the way for a European Union capable of contending with and rivalling the great powers. If France proves anything, it is that addressing factors of fragility is difficult; future-proofing a country against fragility is harder still.
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