France these days has been engulfed by the worst urban riots over the policies of the youngest president of the history at Elysee Palace. Meantime, the Europeans fear that the protests would spread to their countries as well, as evidence suggests that the activities of most major political movements in the continent, such as Socialism, Communism and Far Right over the past few years have been greatly influenced by the developments in France. To shed more light on the recent events in France, we interviewed Dr. Hojatollah Ayyoubi, a senior expert on French affairs.
Q: How will the protests in France, which have spread to other European countries, affect the cohesion of Europe and their international status as a united political structure?
Today Europeans are worried about this trend for various reasons. The fact is that they do not have borders because frontiers have been physically and mentally removed to a great extent and for the same reason, the current of the yellow vests can be widespread in Europe because other countries in the continent have problems similar to those in France. The majority of French people, despite all the bitter incidents, including clashes, violence, killing of protesters and problems emerging during the New Year, support the yellow vest movement, and this is why the movement has the capacity to engulf other parts of Europe.
On the other hand, this episode is somewhat anti-European Union and the defeat of its economic policies and ultimately leads to more power for the far-right movement, which the EU is very much concerned it may take over. It is because the far right under French leadership such as Le Pen is considered anti-EU in the areas of discourse, intellectualism, and line of thinking. Their slogans are against immigration, return to single currency and security and the recent events in Europe have added to the number of supporters of this idea. Ultimately, the coming to power of a far-right movement would mean the collapse of the European Union.
Q: What is the reason for the spread and continuation of popular protests in France?
The protests in France were apparently sparked by rising fuel prices, which was a source of great concern for many French people living in the suburbs. But this was just an excuse, and the scope of these protests began to gradually expand. Macron’s policies and the Fifth Republic, in particular, the economic situation of the people and the heavy taxes on various sectors, have turned these protests into an all-out movement.
Q: What measures has Macron taken to diminish the scope of the massive protests and to what extent has the demands of the protesters been considered in the plans outlined by the Macron administration?
At the outset, Macron and his government team did not take this movement seriously because he considered his reforms fundamental and important and for the same reason they turned a blind eye to the protests, but after three weeks into the start of the protests and their expansion he had to apologize and assured the people that he has revised his decisions. Even in an action over the past few days, he released a letter asking the people to discuss important issues, such as referendums and changing the electoral system of France and other demands. However, it is not clear how effective this letter which has been written out of desperation would be?
Some see this movement the end of political parties, while this movement is popular and comparable to the May 1968 movement. The far-right parties, Melenchon and the far left have entered the field and outlined claims and demands, and a kind of discourse for the popular movement. Of course, many French people had these demands but in the early weeks of the protests, they were not mentioned. Nonetheless, today they are the demands of all the people of France and the movement.
For many years, the French people have thought that the Fifth Republic had been designed as a suitable platform for General De Gaulle and that after him there would be no one like him as president to take over all the powers in France.
During the Fourth Republic, there was intense disagreement in the parliament, and the excessive power of the parliament led to the collapse of governments one after the other. Within 12 years, close to 20 governments and prime ministers and two presidents came to power and failed which resulted in a crisis in France. Under those circumstances, when de Gaulle came to power he lowered the power of the parliament and political parties as a first step.
Therefore, in the Fifth Republic, which in the opinion of some people it is a republican dictatorship, the parliament as a semi-presidential system, has no real responsibility. After a 200-year war between the legislative and executive power the former was defeated.
What de Gaulle had in mind was a state like Napoleon’s first empire or his grandson’s second empire, during which the parliament was sidelined and the president took control of the affairs.
Most of the former French leaders had the charisma to take over the position, but in the last few terms, leaders such as Sarkozy, Francois Hollande and Macron did not have such a capacity and charisma.
Small parties have been completely eliminated in the outline of the French electoral system, and the country experiences a multi-party and bipolar system. For example, a far-right party with almost 20% of the vote usually does not have seats in most terms. For this reason, most of the power is held by the two traditional Left and Right parties, and the Socialists and Gaullists always have the sovereignty of the country.
Today, one of the demands of the small and middle parties is the change of electoral system from the majority to a proportion once experienced by the French in 1984. Raising the slogan of freedom of expression, Mitterrand changed the electoral system in one term causing the far right party gain 35 seats. Today, if the French electoral system undergoes a change the number of seats this party will gain will be very high. This, in turn, will greatly worry the two main and most powerful parties in France.
Q: What is the main demand of the yellow vests movement?
The failure of integration policies as one of the other problems of France is manifested more than before in the yellow vests movement. For many years, the French have been spending money on cultural integration, and today we see that part of the violence that has occurred during the protests are young and adolescent immigrants who see themselves as the third and fourth sidelined generations, and feel great injustice, discrimination, and humiliation against themselves. And today they have the opportunity to voice their objections. It is said that from morning till sunset, the yellow vests hold protest rallies on the streets, and when it gets dark, the slum dwellers show off their anger by storming shops and looting, and the failure of integration policies has increased the fire of this anger and uprising.
Q: What are the major challenges facing Macron?
Macron has two big problems in the French political system: one is his acquisition of power without a supportive party. Although Macron established a party after the presidency, it has no roots, no identity, and no power, and so far no one has been able to enter Elysee without the support of a powerful party. Valery Giscard d’Estaing, for example, was unable to win the second term because of presence in a moderate, radical, independent and weak party. Also, all the 1995 opinion polls introduced Edouard Balladur as president, but he failed to enter the Elysée Palace due to lack of a party, which shows that going and staying at Elysee without a strong party is difficult and impossible.
Macron claims that he has no tendency to the left and right, but in fact, he is inclined to both sides and this is his second problem. This policy of the current French president, due to certain behaviors such as not hearing the voices of the traditional parties and the prominent figures of the left and right, has disappointed them and Macron’s isolation in the political system. These days his positions are not considered moderate by the main factions. On the other hand, small parties have opposed him from the outset and continue to oppose him.
Macron’s liberal economic policies may seem reasonable in the eyes of think tanks and theoreticians and economic researchers like (Jacques Attali), but the French society is accustomed to the Socialist system, fewer taxes, popular support, social security, and unemployment. As a result, the French people, as very conservative people, do not easily accept new changes.
Q: How do you anticipate the future of Macron’s government?
Macron will no longer be able to survive these protests, although he may find a way to continue the path till the end of his first five years of the presidency, in France in the last few terms, the presidents have ruled for one term that is a strange event in its kind.
Macron has two options ahead: Dissolution of the House is one of the two choices. He has to make other reforms, including in the field of economics. It should be kept in mind that the dissolution of the parliament may result in the coming to power of the opposition parties, including Melenchon, Socialists and the Far Right, in which case Macron should sacrifice his current prime minister and bring to power someone from the opposition. This event would mark the fourth coexistence period. In two terms of the Mitterrand presidency and a term under Chirac, the president after accepting coexistence, somehow abandons power and his authorities are diminished. Thus the president delegates the administration of the country to the opposition and he only maintains a presence in foreign policy events, protocols, and award-giving ceremonies. Eventually, with the acceptance of coexistence, Macron who has no hope of winning a second term would lose the first term as well and would hold a ceremonial post. For this reason, Macron’s aides prevent him from doing this in order not to lose ministries and ministers.
On the other hand, if Macron does not accept coexistence, he must accept referendum and support it. In his letter released last week, there were grumbles about a referendum; and accepting a referendum meant crossing the Fifth Republic and creating a challenge and crisis for himself, as a result of which the French political system undergoes changes in the presidential system and the powers of the parliament. Eventually, the death of the republic will arrive at the time of Macron as one of the advocates of the Fifth Republic.
Macron has no choice but to accept one of these two ways. Of course, with radical changes in his cabinet, such as the replacement of the interior minister, the minister of economics and the prime minister, he may satisfy people to some extent. To do this too he will need the support of powerful figures from the left and right factions. But it must be noted that Macron has been exposed to some extent and the people would not accept anything less than referendum and the change of the political system.
Q: Do the recent events in France have foreign root? How much has the interventions and positions of the United States affected the continuation of the French protests?
The French sense of independence from the United States and European leadership during the Fifth Republic has doubled. Trump may pretend to be intervening in French events to gain more legitimacy and power and portray these measures effectively. He may even meet with far-right wingers formally and publicly to prove to his people of his country that he is capable of leaving an impact on France. But the reality is that American intervention will not affect the French people. It should be taken into account that the disappointment with the left and right currents and shifting towards popular, populist, and mass movements is known as a major issue in France, which began in the 80s and soared today.
Q: What would be the impact of the French riots – that have spread to other European states as well – on Europe’s coherence, its relations with the US and the international standing of Europe as a political structure that claims to be united?
The protest movement in France has a very strong capability to spread to other countries and such impacts are visible at the present time. It is because the French still enjoys a good status before the public opinion of Europe and the actions of most of the major political currents of Europe such as Socialism, Communism, and far-right faction are largely influenced by the events and developments in France.
The revival of radical currents, such as the far right and far left parties, and the partial presence of traditional currents and parties, are the result of conflicts in France. Polls during the first round of elections in 2017, spoke of an unprecedented number of votes by the people, including workers, for the far right parties led by Mrs. Marine Le Pen. Such an incident was not possible in the 60s and 70s. These changes began in the 80s, during which the working class, which had always voted for the left, today vote for far rights. These cases increase the likelihood of the yellow vests protest movement spreading to other parts of Europe.
The recent events and protests in France have undermined its position in the European Union and diminished their claim of leadership over the continent. Of course, the outcome of these movements could usher new developments and currents and their leadership in political, social and cultural spheres in Europe.
If the result of the French protests is coming to power of the far right, the European Union will face a serious challenge and head towards collapse in which case the Americans would be the winners.