The problems with these dismal elections are many—low turnout, moribund public debate, the popularity of politicians running as Putinist populists, and an uninspiring incumbent president, Emmanuel Macron. But at the heart of the French democratic recession is a void where local democracy should be.
That void stems from France’s highly centralized system of government.
Democracy, at its core, is a local thing—everyday people governing themselves. But France’s powerful national government make most decisions. France’s 36,000 municipalities lack even the power and independence to decide on the democratic tools they use.
The president and the national government control taxes and spending (80 percent of public spending in France happens at the national level, compared to around 50 percent in Germany and the U.S.), as well as major policy areas.
The result is a lack of local investment and development that contributes to diminishing social mobility, and to divides between urban and rural areas.
To prevent opponents of democracy from exploiting such divisions and filling this local void, France must empower local governments to go their own way and make their own decisions.
A shift to local control in France—the country of Montesquieu and Tocqueville—would resonate globally. It also could spark badly needed democratization in North and West Africa, where former French colonies have struggled with local development.
But such a change is considered highly unlikely. France’s centralization is a defining characteristic, dating to the original French Revolution, and the Jacobin insistence on a “one and indivisible republic. Back then, a centralized state seemed necessary in a nation where half of the people did not speak French. Today, fears linger that regions might break away if they had more autonomy.
Macron, despite winning the presidency with a door-knocking campaign, has reinforced centralization. He’s micro-managed the nation, reduced the authority of mayors, and made demands of localities while cutting their budgets.
“I make absolutely no apology for the verticality of power,” Macron told one literary magazine.
Of course, none of Macron’s major opponents—not even Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo—made a major issue of the country’s lack of local power. That has frustrated some of France’s more ambitious and progressive cities, who are limited to “experiments” in local democracy.
In Grenoble, a diverse, university-oriented city in the Alps, local officials have tried as much as possible to increase local democratic participation and enact climate-friendly policies. But the national government has used its authority and budget cuts to limit these efforts.
“This ‘Macronesque’ power is overwhelming,” Grenoble Mayor Eric Piolle told an interviewer. “It has a Jacobin quality, whereas, in fact, modern society should be based on equality, a network of actors working together, capable of coming together in coalitions on specific issues at specific times and then moving on to forge other coalitions on other issues.”
A social movement to decentralize power in France would be novel, but it would have natural allies: the hundreds of thousands of French citizens who serve in powerless local government. And there are strong contemporary models for democratic decentralization from overly centralized authority, in places as different as Ukraine and Indonesia.
Opening the doors to that sort of local democracy would require changes in France’s constitution. About three dozen French mayors have begun an effort to bring these about, even backing a short-lived presidential campaign by democracy scholar and researcher Clara Egger.
Video: Professor Clara Egger explains the role direct democracy has played in the French presidential campaign.
She told me recently that the coalition is pursuing two constitutional changes that would introduce Swiss-style direct democracy, and make it easier to amend the constitution, with the goal of opening up space for more local self-government.
Such changes have been considered political longshots. But these elections show French democracy at the precipice. To prevent its fall, the best strategy is more robust local self-government.
I’m hearing great things about a podcast miniseries, Radicaal Lokaal, backed by the NGOs Meer Democratie and Agora Europa. The six episodes explore what might happen if all democratic decisions—about everything from windmills to digital currencies— were made by local governments, rather than national governments. It’s available here in Dutch—I’m hoping for an English translation.
“Living in a democratic country may add 11 years to your life expectancy” —from “Politics and population health: Testing the impact of electoral democracy,” by University of British Columbia (Canada) sociologists Andrew C. Patterson and Gerry Veenstra. They found that even when controlling for wealth, living in an established democracy makes you healthier.
“Democracy is like blowing your nose. You may not do it well, but it’s something you ought to do yourself.” —G.K. Chesterton