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Frankreich Lehrer streiken wegen Schulreform
Among those who are disillusioned are the country's teachersImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Hertzog

French politics in crisis

Kersten Knipp/rc
May 25, 2015

The French are losing faith in their politicians, and at the same time, turning away from political life. Now, the country is discussing the reasons for the crisis. Criticism is centering on the power of the president.


The newly designated head of the French Socialist Party (PS) is Jean-Christophe Camadelis. Party members voted him into the office in the middle of last week. Or rather, half of the party's members did. Only 50 percent of its members - about 75,000 people - actually participated in the vote.

The rest of the French people, some 66 million citizens, viewed the vote with a moderate level of interest at best. And the upcoming PS party conference at the beginning of June is likely to also leave them cold. "We're holding a congress, and the French don't care," the newspaper Le Monde wrote about the frustrated activists in its weekend edition.

Massive loss of trust in politics

"When the party members lose faith" was the headline of the Le Monde article. The paper picked up on a phenomenon that has been growing in France for years but that is increasingly becoming a subject of discussion: the French ennui with politics. Or more precisely, they've grown tired of their political parties.

A study by research company Ipsos that was commissioned by Le Monde delivered sobering results when it was published in the middle of April: Only 9 percent of French people have faith in their political parties. The rest - more than 90 percent of those surveyed - are lacking such faith. Only a quarter of respondents said they thought parliamentarians were trustworthy. The French parliament has an equally poor reputation. Less than a third (31 percent) of those surveyed feel that the population is being adequately represented. And they see no solution in Europe. Only 35 percent of the French trust the EU.

Frankreich Arbeitslosigkeit auf Rekordwert
Many of France's young people have got used to unemployment as a fact of lifeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The economy, schools, culture, the national image: Almost everything in France is in crisis. And now, a political crisis can be added to the list. Because no matter who gets elected, whether the French choose a president from the left or right of the spectrum, they don't feel that they're doing any better. "France's political and economic institutions are lacking in reliability, legitimacy, and credibility. That is destabilizing all of society and forcing us into an extremely serious crisis," wrote the online magazine Atlantico.

The power of the president

But where is this crisis in faith coming from? Many observers say that the country's primary institution – the Fifth Republic – is at the heart of the discontent. In other words, it's the strength and power of the president. The newspaper Libération recently reminded readers of the famed statement of the founding father of the Fifth Republic, President Charles de Gaulle. "The indivisible and entire authority of the state is entrusted by the people to the president they have elected. There is no other authority."

But the paper also wrote that de Gaulle took on personal responsibility for his position. When the French rejected a referendum he spearheaded about reforming regional government, he resigned. It's this sort of personal consequence that his successors have lacked, said Libération.

Elysee Palast in Paris
The Elysee Palace has come under fire from those who are unhappy with the office of presidentImage: Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images

'An encrusted system'

Other analysts agree. The tenor of their arguments is that the power given to the president by the constitution has given rise to leaders who do not fulfill their campaign promises, and who have curtailed the power of the prime minister and the government.

In her book "Poison Présidentiel" ("Presidential Poison"), journalist Ghislaine Ottenheimer, editor in chief of business magazine "Challenges," writes that the republic has become incapable of making political decisions. "This system promotes national narcissism and melancholy. It is archaic and vertical. It entrusts the fate of the entire nation to a single man. It legitimizes his moods and destroys everything else."

The disappointed left

Leftist commentators appear to be particularly disappointed at the moment. They accuse President François Hollande of failing to deliver on most of his promises. They are still waiting for him to act on his announced economic reforms.

"Economically, Hollande is a liberal, but politically, he's not," wrote former Le Monde journalist Edwy Plenel, founder of the Internet magazine, Mediapart, in his book "Dire non" ("Say no").

Francois Hollande Pressekonferenz 05.02.2015
One contention is that Hollande, for example, has too much powerImage: Reuters/P. Wojazer

With that, says Plenel, Hollande is continuing the politics of his predecessor, and contributing to the general crisis in faith. And according to Le Monde, only one party is profiting from that: the National Front. Its ranks have grown from just 7,000 members in 2007, to more than 80,000.

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