Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Blowing a raspberry at France’s democracy

Abstention is the cancer currently eating into French democracy and society. President Emmanuel Macron is keen to keep it that way

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
22 August 2021, 12.01am
French YouTuber Mcfly blows a raspberry at President Macron during the filming of a video in the Elysée Palace

Workplace voting among the five million employed by France’s smallest enterprises has put the country’s main militant trade union federation, the CGT, in pole position for the sector. Its general secretary, Philippe Martinez, welcomed the fact that his federation “with its trade unionism of ideas, of protest, of demands, of struggle and negotiation” had increased its share by 1% to 26.3.

But what could Martinez say about the level of participation? It was a disastrous 5.4% of the 4,888,296 entitled to vote this spring. That was so low as to make the outcome little more than an irrelevance amid the COVID epidemic, the steady encroachment by President Macron on the role of democracy in the country, and the jockeying for pole position among politicians on the French Right, which will determine who runs the country after the presidential vote next spring.

Martinez was a frequent presence across the broadcast media during the national industrial strikes and the protests against Macron until they were shut down by the COVID epidemic. Like others from the Left, he has now been all but sidelined as editorial controllers have moved to giving regular, almost daily, platforms to Macron’s ministers or running repeated set-piece arguments over ‘security’, ‘identity’ and ‘Republican values’.

The CGT’s answer to low participation in workplace elections is to have one moment across the whole of the French economy where all employees, in industry or services, in the public or the private sectors, get to discuss the issues and then vote for their representatives on workplace, sectoral and national negotiating bodies. This is the last thing Macron wants: structured moments of democracy beyond his control – when people at the bottom of the pile sense the power of acting together when it comes to making choices about their lives.

The last thing Macron wants is people at the bottom of the pile sensing the power of acting together

On his way to being the first president of the Fifth Republic to visit the Catholic shrine at Lourdes in mid-July, Macron spoke of “the handful of rules that I decreed on Monday” 12 July. The visit was part of his drive to scoop up votes from the Catholic Right, the phrase was his description of the TV broadcast in which he announced how he intended to handle the epidemic in the teeth of the Delta variant: relaxation of social distancing rules but enforcement of vaccination by threatening the jobs of those who refuse a jab, particularly if they are health or care workers.

Decrees are things he likes. He has put fewer laws before the French parliament for its members to vote on than his predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, but imposed many more measures by decree: 291 decrees so far, to just 180 voted laws.

The country’s constitutional court decided in May this year that, even if a decree was not validated by a parliamentary vote, it could retain the force of law that means it would escape control by the country’s Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative court. The Conseil has been something of a thorn in Macron’s side, demanding, for instance, that the government mark some real progress on environmental issues before the end of this year.

Solo decision-making

In the context of such an erosion of democratic accountability, it is not surprising that, in France, public suspicion and cynicism around COVID has grown. Macron’s decision taking since the start of the pandemic has been dressed up in, at best, half-truths and, at worst, lies. The key decisions on when and how to act against the spread of the virus have all been guided by his political considerations rather than scientific advice. They have increasingly been taken solo.

On the morning of 12 July, the Elysée media briefers were saying the president would not be announcing what he then went on to ‘decree’ in the evening. By the first Monday in August, he was doing his own question-and-answer session on the internet, in T-shirt, from his holiday home on the Mediterranean. Brushing aside the country’s health services, he told us he was there to answer our concerns, to help us understand, as if he alone might persuade the recalcitrants who have been taking to the streets in growing numbers each weekend.

Barely half the population is fully vaccinated, and, in any case, the vaccine does not eliminate the transmission of the virus’s Delta variant. But the panoply of potential measures to halt the spread of the virus has been all but ditched in favour of a vaccination drive. This has not yet covered the whole population because the vaccines are not yet there for everyone.

It helps Macron to focus on the tiny fringe that will forever refuse a vaccine. In his discourse, all is reversed, inverted. It is not the continuing failure of the French state to mobilise the public services, industrial production and the population in general against this epidemic that he wants us to denounce, but the most abject victims of that failure. It is not the erosion of the public health system or French science, but a handful of health workers ambushed by anti-vax propaganda that he wants subjected to scrutiny. The heroes of the spring of last year are, for him, the scapegoats of today.

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What has been driving the weekend protests is not intellectual obscurantism but opposition to his authoritarian methods. That is shared by a majority of the population, not always for the same reasons. The resumption in force of the epidemic and the presence of the extreme Right puts limits on who will join in street protests – much to Macron’s calculating satisfaction.

Amid the panicked reactions to the abstention disaster of the June regional and departmental elections, he kept his counsels. His private polling had told him it was coming. Of course, it would have been good if the ministerial candidates he personally deployed in the north of France or in Paris had performed better. For the moment, it does not harm him when his minions fail. Nor when people do not vote, whether in the workplace or the polling station.

More than anyone else, it is those at the bottom end of society who do not vote. In June, only a third of those on the register voted. Of manual workers, some 10% do not have the citizenship that gives the right to vote. Another 10% choose not to register. One study concluded in 2012 (we do not have a more recent analysis to go by) that electoral non-participation was as high as 40% among unskilled manual workers.

These are the ones leading the most vulnerable and precarious lives, the ones for whom the public structures of support and assistance often do the least, the ones who are the most in need of collective democratic engagement and what it can bring when it comes to changing the policies pursued by governments. They are also the ones for whom such engagement can appear more difficult than blank refusal, whether it is of good advice on their health or calls to exercise their democratic rights.

The heroes of the spring of last year are, for Macron, the scapegoats of today

The energy and inventiveness of ordinary people cannot operate in a vacuum. It is there with the teacher who made distance-learning for primary-levels kids fun via Youtube, or the young activists who faced down police harassment to take surplus, unsold supplies from Paris’s giant fruit and veg market at Rungis to the poor neighbourhoods of the capital’s banlieus, or the CGT members who continue to campaign to get their Luxfer oxygen bottle factory back to work, bottles that could help health services worldwide treat acute COVID patients – they were back in the employment tribunals in July.

Rather than join in providing the structures of organisation and funding that could transform such individual actions into a society-wide effort, Macron has been clearing the decks for the presidential vote. Some of his main measures are being postponed. The key one retained is that reducing the rights of the unemployed, which will come into force on 1 October. It does not hurt his appeal to his potential electorate to put the supposedly work-shy in the pillory.

Those voters were delivered antics via YouTube, when Macron took part in a ‘anecdotes battle’, filmed in the Elysée, amid all its gold lacquer and over elegant furniture, with two apolitical rappers, Mcfly and Carlito. The video was viewed by some 13 million over the weekend it went live in late May. This was the Jupiterian president hamming up an entertainment for the young, professionally mobile escapists on the café terraces he was opening up. The king was inviting his clowns into the inner sanctum, hoping to lay that part of youth culture open to exploitation for his electoral purposes.

The show appropriately ended with a gig in the Elysée gardens for the three of them given by the French heavy metal band, Ultra Vomit. That was after Mcfly had delivered a pre-arranged, rehearsed raspberry to a president who has spent the past four years castigating any youngster who got too familiar with him. Look at the YouTube duo, watch their online performances, and it may not take long before you start to think that the raspberry was not so much for Macron but for those he would quite like to stay at home when the polling stations open.

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