With his mandate still ongoing and the potential chance that he may run for reelection in 2022, the Presidency of Emmanuel Macron being the youngest Chief of State in the history of the French Republic, has brought many questions surrounding his power and the nature of his presidency. Is he some kind of ‘unidentified political object’ or does he follow in the lineage of his predecessors? Has he really got an absolute power over the French decision-making and if so, what is the source of this power? In this article, we sought to assess of the symbolic power and actual power of decision of President Macron. We look at his symbolic link with his predecessors, mainly the founder of the French Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, and respond to whether or not he incarnates a ‘symbolic heir’ to his presidency. Furthermore, looking at the evolution of the French constitution, we will argue of its impact on the Presidential power and most particularly under Emmanuel Macron’s Presidency.
Is Macron following in the footsteps of de Gaulle?
In 2017, President Macron’s election broke with the traditional Left/Right encounter in the second ballot of the French elections. In turn, it has brought to life numerous questionings about the nature of this political shift. Most particularly, is the Presidency of Emmanuel Macron disrupting the Presidential model, or is it rather the continuity of President de Gaulle’s doctrine of the Fifth Republic? French Constitutionalist Olivier Duhamel, (2018) argues that although Macron’s arrival to power does not seem to be similar with his predecessors, the new President seems to establish through various political similitudes, a symbolic image in relation with the first President and World War hero, Charles de Gaulle. However, Duhamel adds that this symbolic image of the Gaullist Republic is only but an illusion in the mandate of Emmanuel Macron.
Firstly, Macron’s election reminds us of de Gaulle’s declaration ‘France is not the left, nor the right!’, rejecting the party system and the necessity to belong to either side of the hemicycle. Indeed, his campaign revolved around a similar idea. This image was deepened as Macron named as Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, a former member of the Republican party. It is the first time a President, not constrained by a cohabitation, chooses a Prime Minister outside of his party, which happened to be majoritarian in Parliament. Hence, trying to place himself in the lineage of the founder of the Fifth Republic by creating this image of the man acting for the interest of France, and not seeking to serve the interests of a party. Something similar happened with De Gaulle as he named in 1962, George Pompidou, a nomination considered controversial at the time, as he was not a representative from the National Assembly. The two men also have in common the fact that their Presidency is built around a political force created and centred around their figure. Indeed, just like de Gaulle, who’s own political party, the Union for a New Republic, was created to support his actions as he returned to power in 1958, Macron’s movement, La République en Marche, was created to support him in the elections of 2017. Both parties were also composed of members deriving from a variety of political orientation, centred around their leader. Finally, besides the fact that both men prior being President, had never been elected to hold a public office, Macron also publicly stated that his vision of the Presidency was in accordance with de Gaulle’s Monarchic lecture, declaring that the French people expect the President to remain ‘Jupiterian-like’. These elements would still seem mere coincidences had Macron not accumulate the symbolic gestures in honour of the founder of the Fifth Republic. He made of the year 2020 – though marked for a serious period, by a national health lockdown, preventing the French to come out of their houses – the “year De Gaulle”, in which numerous national ceremonies would occur in honour of the late General. Two of which happened during the national lockdown; on June 18th , the day of the 80th anniversary of General de Gaulle’s famous appeal to resistance from his exile in London, Emmanuel Macron flew right away to London in order to give an homage in person to the hero of World War II, at his former headquarters in n°4 Carlton Gardens. Therefore, Macron’s presidency in appearances, seems to succeed and align all elements to prove that he is the heir of Charles de Gaulle, but this image displayed is only but an illusion far from reality, and proves only the slow decline of the symbolic power of the function. Indeed, though Macron seeks to model himself after De Gaulle – and truthfully shares with him the ‘outsider’ characteristic – he forgets the fact that General de Gaulle possessed a charismatic legitimacy due to the historical political context. He was the one who, in times of crisis, and in complete illegality, decided to surge out of the ranks and plead against the position of the legally legitimate government of France, who favoured an armistice with Nazis Germany.
Macron, however, does not possess this similar charisma. In short, he is the real outsider. For, when the populists wave -that allowed him to be in power- starts diminishing slowly, the lack of political trust is felt. Indeed after almost three years in power the seemingly “Gaullian” President finds himself with an approval rating of only 41% last April. Moreover, although de Gaulle’s position toward the political parties was known, and that his party at first, was gathering members from both the right and left, the reality is that the Gaullist party then succeeded to restructure themselves and take root at the right. Macron’s party however, gathers from the right and left as a result of the democratic crisis which disrupted the hegemony of the mainstream left and right political parties in France, during the presidential and legislative elections of 2017. Hence, though his party succeeds to maintain the cult of the chief, it lacks of a distinct ‘doctrinal contribution’ capable to mobilise its members and to create a ‘bond with the people’, as argues former French President François Hollande in his latest book. The Yellow Vest crisis which struck France late 2018 can be observed as an example of En Marche and Macron’s inability to establish a link with the people, as the conflictual protest at the time received a favourable opinion polling 66% while the President during the crisis fell to 23%.
Therefore, although Emmanuel Macron seeks to establish a symbolic link with the General de Gaulle, he does not possess the constitutive elements for a “Gaullist-type” of Presidential power. Under his ongoing mandate, the symbolic power of the Presidential function diminished as Macron has failed to establish himself as the heir of the “General” and has not yet rooted his party toward distinct political doctrine.
Has the Presidential function lost parts of its stature?
In assessing of the Presidential power under Macron’s current presidency, it would be necessary to put his ongoing mandate in perspective with some of the constitutional changes the Fifth Republic has known since 1958. The two most noticeable reformed elements in the constitution concerning the action of the President are firstly, the previously argued reform of 1962 introducing the election of the President directly by the people; and secondly, the reform of 2000 reducing the mandate of the President of five years instead of seven. Hence, it will be argued that the constitutional changes of the Fifth Republic have consequently decreased the symbolic power of the function under Macron. French Historian Serge Berstein (2004) argues that although the General de Gaulle introduced the 1962 reform with the intention of placing at the top of the state a man making the unanimity of the nation – hence, providing a sufficient legitimacy to his considerable powers – it instead restructured the influence of the parties and deepened the right and left divide. The President would no longer be an individual selected by the entire nation, but a party leader whom his political movement pushed to the second ballot and by the time he is elected, would rule with only half of the intended legitimacy. This argument increased even more with the case of Macron. Although he is not part of the mainstream parties, his election in the first ballot was with a low margin, 23%, only 1% ahead of his opponent Marine Le Pen. Thus, demonstrating that Macron’s election rested upon the support of his political movement. Ultimately, in the second ballot of the elections, Macron became President by 63% of the expressed voters, but only 41% of the registered voters in France, hence, distancing his accession to power from the image of the man chosen by the nation. Moreover, with the constitutional reform of 2000 under President Chirac, reducing the mandate of the President from seven to five years, the presidency of Emmanuel Macron loses the ‘Presidential stature’ of his function which his predecessors – except for Sarkozy and Hollande – used in their advantage. Indeed, academics such as Ghevontian (2014) argued that the reduction of the Presidential mandate de-sacralises the office and deprives it of its temporal advantage, which used to place the Presidency ‘above’ a legislative power in which the MPs are only elected for a five year’ mandate. As such, the President is no longer considered superior, but at the same level as the members in parliament, the Presidency loses of its Monarchic symbolic and the capacity for the President to produce more policies. As an example, the first seven-years mandate of François Mitterrand allowed him to produce long-term policies such as the ‘Grand Travaux’ and legitimated even more his primacy over the decision making. Additionally, the two remaining years of Mitterrand’s mandate, under the cohabitation – which allowed his opposite Prime Minister Jacques Chirac to obtain some powers of the executive due to the fact that the majority in Parliament had switched to the right – have permitted Mitterrand to continue most of his policies and better prepare for re-election. Macron’s capacity in comparison is more reduced, for as soon as he reached the half of his mandate, the spectre of an eventual candidacy for re-election appears, accompanied with increased scrutiny on the accomplishments of the President and the crises he had faced already in the past two years and a half since his arrival in office. Therefore, it could be argued that this balancing of the institutions does not favour the President, decreasing his image of Chief, and effectively reducing his ability to act.
Overall, the constitutional reforms of the Fifth Republic may negatively impact the Presidency and most particularly the mandate of Emmanuel Macron. The election of Emmanuel Macron through direct universal suffrage proved the constitutional reform brought by de Gaulle did not provided him with a sufficient legitimacy, due to the fact that Macron won the election with a low margin of registered voters. Moreover, the unprecedented context of the second ballot of the elections, with two outsiders –Le Pen and Macron- in the second ballot certainly has pushed people to vote for Macron, driven by a desire to block Marine Le Pen’s rise to power. Ultimately, the symbolic power under Macron’s Presidency is decreased, as he lost the ability to inscribe his action in the long-term, hence, presenting a stature less imposing than those of his predecessors.
The Presidential power under Macron’s presidency.
Even though it was demonstrated how Macron’s presidency does not possess the same symbolic aspect and legitimacy as the one of its predecessors, it will finally be argued that however, the powers of the President are retained under Macron’s presidency. Indeed, as de Gaulle succeeded to substitute the pre-eminence of the legislative over the executive power with the creation of the Fifth Republic, a regime in which not only the President is protected from the meddling of the legislative, but his powers over Parliament are somewhat increased ; Macron similarly leans upon this traditional vision of the President-Monarch as he declared that the French people expect the President to remain ‘Jupiterian-like’. Hence, remaining with this image of a President that does not share power within the executive but rather distribute it according to his will. Additionally, with the inversion of the electoral calendar of 2001, placing the legislative elections succeedingly after the election of the President, and the reduction of the mandate of the President since 2000, it rendered the cases of the ‘cohabitation’ less likely. As the legislative elections, following the election of the President, are now seen as in order to provide the Chief of State with a Presidential majority capable to cooperate with the policies of the executive. As such, after his election, Emmanuel Macron’s party obtained in the following legislative elections 43%, thus providing LAREM an absolute majority in parliament with 308 seats in the hemicycle. Moreover, with the appointing of Edouard Philippe as Prime Minister, a former member of the Republican party holding 112 seats in parliament, Macron sought to enlarge and stabilize his majoritarian field in the legislative. This combination of characteristics therefore reduces the chances for the President to face a dyarchy in the executive and allow to obtain a strong majority, increasing the primacy of the executive over the legislative. This constitutional restructuration may have resolved the phenomenon of alternation, reducing the risks of experiencing a divided government, in which the President of the Republic yields some of his powers to the Prime Minister. Under Macron, the Prime Minister does not oppose the President, in fact, since he is defined to be accountable to the parliament, he finds himself in this specific case accountable to the Presidential party which possesses an absolute majority and is dedicated to its leader. Hence, strengthening the position of the Prime Minister as the subordinate of the President. Besides the fact that the President maintain his traditional position, as he takes the decisions and presents his policies directly to the nation through allocutions or interviews, the capacity for the legislative to meddle with the executive and for the Prime Minister to gain some authority are consequently reduced under Macron.
Overall, if the President has lost some of its stature, his powers under Emmanuel Macron remains intact. His arrival to power, though from an unprecedented context, succeed a continuation of the Presidential primacy combined with Macron’s absolute superiority over the legislative, the presidency of Emmanuel Macron, in to quote Suleiman (1980), seems almost “imperial”.
With the arrival of Emmanuel Macron, we firstly demonstrated how Macron, sought to inscribe his presidency in the lineage of de Gaulle, yet over the similitudes, it is only but an illusion as he does not possess the constitutive elements of a Gaullian-type presidential power. The symbolic impact of the Presidential function is diminished under Macron. However, we finally demonstrated that the Presidential power under Emmanuel Macron’s retains the form of a traditional Monarchic lecture. Also, with the constitutional reforms, the President of the Republic is less likely to share his power with his PM. However, as Emmanuel Macron’s mandate is not over – rendering an assessment of the power of the presidential function difficult to assess – it can be argued that the upcoming local and regional elections – serving as a “sample” prior the following Presidential elections – can tell us if Macron succeeded to establish a long-standing link with the people
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