Why the French Take to the Streets

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the things I’ve noticed about the coverage of the Gilets Jaunes or “Yellow Vests” protests in France is this tendency to think of the French taking to the streets as a cultural phenomenon. People in the Anglosphere think the French protest because that’s the way the French are. So whenever there’s a commotion in France of any variety, everyone wants to make all sorts of callbacks to the French Revolution, and invariably the takes on the new protests will resemble the takes on the old protests. You’ll have some people write pieces asking “why can’t we be like the French”, but the undertone will be that the French are the way they are because they’re French, and that while we might wish we could be like the French we never will. I hate cultural explanations, because they’re lazy. State institutions produce different kinds of incentives in different contexts, and these different incentives give rise to different behaviour. We attach that behaviour to peoples, but it is the product of particular institutional configurations. If the French had different institutions, they wouldn’t do what they do.

Image result for yellow vests paris

People take to the streets when they think their institutions will otherwise ignore them. Here are a couple recurrent sets of institutions that tend to make people feel this way:

  1. Consensus-based proportional representation systems, in which elections routinely produce the same coalitions over and over. These kinds of democracies claim to be more representative, but because these democracies require a consensus to do anything, when that consensus doesn’t exist they become incapable of governing. This produces frustration in citizens which can give rise to street protest. Unable to dynamically respond to street protests because new elections will just reproduce the same results, these systems aren’t especially stable and are prone to Caesarism.
  2. Action-oriented presidential systems, in which elections heavily empower a president. This person is very difficult to challenge through conventional politics, so when the president begins behaving tyrannically there is no way for citizens to protect themselves from the state except through street protest. Unlike the PR system, the centralised presidential system can respond dynamically in the face of protests, but only if the president has the good sense to respond. Invariably presidential systems will eventually yield a president who is rather senseless, and the result can be civil conflict or a coup.

The United States doesn’t have either of these systems. The separation of powers and checks and balances embedded in the constitution keep the president relatively weak. At the same time, it is not hard to produce a radically different presidential administration at the next election, or to significantly increase or decrease the president’s ability to govern through midterm elections. At least in theory, Americans have lots of political options when dealing with a president or a congress they don’t like. Of the two, we’re probably more at risk of something resembling the PR problem, because of the possibility that the president and the congress (or the Senate and the House) might get into a prolonged standoff that may not be resolved at the next election. During the Obama administration, the 2010 midterms produced gridlock that we could not remove until 2016, and now that the Democrats have regained the House that gridlock will likely resume.

The French system, however, has oscillated between these two poles. It tends to switch back and forth between political systems which easily become gridlocked and incapable of producing decisions, and political systems which heavily concentrate power in the hands of an emperor or president. Whenever the French system is restructured, there is an overreaction to the previous set of institutions. France got sick of its king, so it made the chaotic First Republic, and when it tired of the First Republic it made the First Empire, and when the First Empire failed and France tired of the restored monarchy which followed it, they tried a Second Republic. When the Second Republic couldn’t get the job done, they switched to the Second Empire. When that fell, they embraced the Third Republic. Then when that didn’t work they tried fascism for a hot second before trying to swing the Fourth Republic.

The Fourth Republic had proportional representation, with a prime minister buttressed by a weak president. It looked more like the West German system, albeit without the level of federalism we see in Germany. The French state was more unitary and consequently more dependent on its central administration. This central administration, however, needed consensus to act, and the French state was quickly plunged into crisis scenarios where no such consensus existed. These largely had to do with decolonisation–the Fourth Republic could not figure out what to do with the independence movements in places like Algeria and Indochina. So the French did what they always do when they get exhausted with their gridlocked republican monument to liberty, fraternity, and equality–they junked it for an authoritarian system. This time, instead of choosing an emperor or a nakedly fascist regime, they cloaked it behind presidentialism.

In 1958, the French military attempted to coup out the Fourth Republic, and in an attempt to avert a civil war the President of France handed power over to Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle created the Fifth “Republic”, a system in which the president has enormous personal powers:

The ability of the French President to unilaterally dissolve the legislature and run constitutional referenda puts the person occupying the office in a completely different league from the British Prime Minister or American President. It is virtually impossible to legally challenge the French President outside of the elections which occur every five years. Indeed, for a long time, French presidential terms were seven years long. The French have an elected monarchy which they pretend is a republic.

So when the French President behaves badly, there is nothing the French can do but take to the streets and cause so much disruption that the president backs off. If the French were to lose the ability to cause trouble, the French President could and would utterly run amok. French Presidents know how powerful they are. President Macron speaks like a Gaullist about the importance of a strong central figure in French politics:

Democracy is always presented as if it were incomplete, because democracy is not enough by itself…In French politics, this absence is the presence of a King, a King whom, fundamentally, I don’t think the French people wanted dead. The Revolution dug a deep emotional abyss, one that was imaginary and shared: the King is no more!…French democracy does not manage to fill this void.

If the leader of an Anglosphere country spoke this way, their power and authority would plummet. But because France is in another one of its “bring back Napoleon, bring back Louis XIV, power to the president” phases, Macron got away with it. Well, until now. France, after encouraging its citizens to buy diesel vehicles for years, raised fuel duty under the guise of “combating climate change”. French motorists make only a small contribution to French emissions–it’s France’s industry which does the bulk of the work. But Macron is happy to make the little people pay for the big people’s largesse.

Maybe next time there’s a presidential election, the French can find someone willing to make deeper institutional changes that hold the French President accountable to a parliament. If they did that, they wouldn’t have to go out into the street in the cold all the time. But Macron isn’t up for re-election until 2022. If the French don’t like the gas tax–or the rest of Macron’s agenda, which is mainly built around gutting unions and public services in a failed bid to impress the German Chancellor–all they can do is raise hell until it goes away.