Macron’s very French gambit

  • Themes: France

By calling parliamentary elections, will Emmanuel Macron save the constitution by drawing on a distinctively French legacy of political action, or risk the future of the republic?

French President Emmanuel Macron walks through the Galerie des Bustes at Versailles.
French President Emmanuel Macron walks through the Galerie des Bustes at Versailles. Credit: MAXPPP / Alamy Stock Photo

Few political leaders have the courage to call new elections immediately after a landslide defeat for their party, but if Emmanuel Macron’s startling rise from technocratic anonymity to Jupiterian political dominance has proven anything, it is his startling self-confidence. Nonetheless, the French president’s decision to dissolve the National Assembly and call fresh elections after the heavy defeat of his Renaissance party by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale in the European elections was received generally with a mixture of horror and bafflement by the international press. Why, after all, would a leader possibly want to face the electorate three years earlier than they had to and risk allowing their most dangerous rival to form a new government?

Macron’s strategic use of the French president’s power to dissolve the legislature is not nearly as inexplicable as it first appears to Anglophone commentators. Macron’s decision is not a rash piece of political posturing, but draws on a long-established, and distinctively French, history of thinking about the role of head of state as the guardian of the constitution.

To understand this history, we have to turn back to the Revolution and to the crisis which engulfed France with the collapse of the monarchy in 1791-92. Although their assertion of the sovereignty of the nation had undermined the case for royal government, the men who made the French Revolution had not set out to abolish the monarchy. Louis XVI’s decision to absent himself from France and join a counterrevolutionary army looming on the border in 1791 had forced their hand, and in 1792 the monarchy was abolished, and the king sent to the guillotine.

Yet after a succession of republican constitutions, the descent into revolutionary terror, and the disastrous reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, the old monarchy was restored in 1814. The questions about the legitimacy of direct monarchical rule raised by the Revolution did not, however, disappear. After the Restoration, it was widely accepted that the king could no longer exercise the executive or legislative powers directly, but that he should instead exercise his power through ministers executing the will of an elected legislature.

The experience of the Revolution had also shown that a monarch could play a useful function other than that of head of government, serving as a representative of the unity of the nation and a physical embodiment of the continuity of the state, and, most importantly, as a potential umpire when the relationship between the executive and legislative powers broke down. This was the argument of the influential political theorist Benjamin Constant, who maintained that, though the King could no longer be an ‘active power’, he continued to play a vital role as a pouvoir neutre, or neutral power, separate from the ordinary political process and able to act to save it in times of crisis.

As Constant explained in his 1815 book The Principles of Politics Applicable to all Representative Governments: ‘The executive, legislative and judicial powers are three competences which must cooperate,’ and when they ‘cross, clash with and hinder one another, you need a power which can restore them to their proper place.’ That power could not be one of the ‘active’ powers, and had to stand outside the ordinary political process. The absence of such a power, Constant argued, had been ‘the vice of all free states’ which had hitherto existed. But, he continued:

Constitutional monarchy creates this neutral power in the person of the head of state. The true interest of the head of state is not that any of these powers should overthrow the others, but that all of them should support and understand one another and act in concert.

Floating harmoniously above the political process in the ordinary course of affairs, Constant argued, the monarch enjoyed the para-political legitimacy, generated by their subjects’ fidelity to the ancient continuity of their dynasty, needed to confront any political institution and restore good order and the separation of powers.

How would a monarch ensure this harmonious concert? Through the exercise of their powers to dismiss ministers, to appoint new members to the Chamber of Peers, and to dissolve the lower house of the legislature. Although this balancing role was already to be found in Britain, Constant argued, the French had been the first to discover the essential role that a monarch could play as the guardian of the constitution in a free state.

Constant’s argument has enjoyed considerable support from jurists and constitution-makers ever since. Explicit references to the ‘moderating’ and ‘neutral’ power of the head of state were, for example, included in both the Brazilian Constitution of 1822 and the Portuguese Constitution of 1826, while the idea of the head of state as pouvoir neutre is now a commonplace of both constitutional monarchist thought and of republics with ceremonial presidents. As a report by the EU’s Venice Commission on Democracy Through Law put it in 2015, in most contemporary European states, there exists a neutral power which serves as guardian of the constitutional order by ‘[performing] neutral arbitrage to resolve, diminish, accelerate, prevent, [or] mediate institutional conflict or compromise an outcome beneficial to the participants and the whole nation’.

And it is exactly this power which Macron appeared to invoke on Sunday night when he announced that ‘For me, who always considers that a united, strong, independent Europe is good for France, this is a situation which I cannot countenance, I have decided to give you back the choice of our parliamentary future with a vote.’ Put differently, Macron has elected to wield the president’s power to dissolve the assembly precisely as Constant suggested his neutral monarch should, in order to preserve the constitution and arrest the threat to the parliamentary order he sees in the rise of the French radical right.

Yet France is not a constitutional monarchy and nor does she have a purely ceremonial presidency. In the French Fifth Republic, the president is not a neutral but an active power, and the constitutional struggle which Macron is attempting to resolve is between his own government and the rising power of the Rassemblement Nationale, exposing him to far greater danger than a non-political head of state would be.

The idea that the president can be both neutral power and active executive is baked into the very DNA of the Fifth Republic. It was Charles de Gaulle, father of the current French constitution, who established the model for France’s monarchical presidency and he, like Macron, exercised the power to dissolve the legislature when he felt it necessary to arrest threats to his conception of the proper functioning of French politics, as he did in 1968 in order to reassert the authority of the state after the events of Mai ‘68. As contemporary observers recognised, de Gaulle had combined the powers of neutral guardian of the constitution and head of government in his own person. And as the German-American political scientist Karl Lowenstein acerbically put it: ‘the philosophy underlying the apposite sections of the constitution [of the Fifth Republic] has the musty smell of Benjamin Constant’s pouvoir neutre’.

Yet the history of the Gaullist presidency should also serve as a cautionary tale for Macron. As one of de Gaulle’s successor’s, Jacques Chirac, discovered in 1997 when he dissolved the National Assembly only to hand the reins of government to his rivals, the president of the republic is not a king and his use of the extraordinary powers of the presidency are secondary to the outcomes of a diffident and tumultuous democratic process. Without the symbolic power and constitutional inviolability of kingship, the neutral power of the head of state rests on far less sure footing.

Macron himself is intimately familiar with this history. As he remarked in a 2015 interview with the French newspaper Le 1 before he announced his candidacy: ‘Democracy always appears in a state of incompletion, because democracy is not enough by itself… In French politics, this absence is the presence of a king, a king who, fundamentally, I do not think the French people wanted dead.’ This ‘emotional, imaginary, and collective void’, Macron claimed, had to be filled in order for democracy to thrive.

More so than any other president since de Gaulle, Macron has sought to fill that void through the affectation of a monarchical style and his self-presentation as a representative of the whole nation who floats above the ordinary world of politics. It remains to be seen whether or not the latest gambit by France’s aspiring republican king will allow him to cast himself in the light of the saviour of the constitution, or whether his brinkmanship with the other parties will see him sharing the fate of a Chirac or even a Louis XVI.

As Constant himself wrote, an elected head of state possesses none of the charms of royalty, and consequently a ‘republican power which renews itself periodically, is not a separate being, it does not strike the imagination in any way, has no right to indulgence for its errors, since it sought the position it occupies, and has nothing more precious to defend than its authority’. A president, unlike a king, cannot, in other words, stand apart from the ordinary business of government and serve as the guardian of the constitution without risking its own defeat in the sphere of democratic politics. It is a warning across the centuries which Macron would do well to heed.


Angus Brown