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How France Saved Its Democracy, Why It Matters, And What to Learn From It

How France Saved Its Democracy, Why It Matters, And What to Learn From It

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Hi! How’s everyone. It’s been an amazing few days, hasn’t it? Today we’re going to talk about…what just happened in France, and the lessons it holds for us all.

So. How did the French save their democracy? It was a huge shock, an upset, a genuine surprise. The polls were all turned upside down. How did all that come to pass?

I think it happened in three key steps. The first one?

The Warning

A while back, seeing the writing on the wall, about a month ago now, Emanuel Macron did something remarkable, special, and brave. He talked to the French people in frank, open, and stark terms, giving one of the most powerful and important speeches of the 21st century, as I put it then.

Let me quote from it, because it begins with something you’ll almost never hear a politician do: he admitted he failed.

Here we are. And we must be clear-sighted: we have not succeeded everywhere, particularly when it has come to making our Europe more democratic. It is clear that progress has been limited on this point, sometimes out of timorousness…

We have responded swiftly to the crises we have faced, and united, which means today we can stand together and be here.

But is that enough? Can I stand before you and deliver a satisfied speech, saying “We have done everything well, it’s wonderful, Europe is strong. Let us continue as we have done”? Clear-sightedness and honesty command me to recognize that the battle is not yet won, far from it, and that as the next decade approaches – for that is the horizon we must look to – there is an immense risk that we might be undermined or relegated. Because we are at an unprecedented time of global upheaval, and great transformations are accelerating.

And then he says something even more remarkable and important.

My message today is simple. Paul Valéry said, at the end of the First World War, that we now know that our civilizations are mortal. We must be clear on the fact that our Europe, today, is mortal. It can die. It can die, and that depends entirely on our choices. But these choices must be made now.

So there’s the French President, warning his entire country that…it’s mortal. That these things called civilizations can die. He’s speaking brutally, openly, and absolutely to the point.

And he’s the only leader on the side of democracy to have done that so far. The point I made when we discussed this speech was that so far, we all feel this way—civilization’s at risk—and yet it’s only the right who openly discusses it. The side of democracy shies away from it. It doesn’t like admitting just what Macron did, that he failed, democracy’s side is failing, and “civilizations are mortal”, in this speech, which will go down in history…

Because now we know what happened next. Macron’s speech appears to have registered. It’s not that it alone changed the election. It didn’t. But it certainly played a crucial role. It was a warning.

Suddenly, Macron sounded like one of us…”alarmists”…not a standard establishment neoliberal politician trumpeting the same old BS the world’s been hearing for decades now, even as things fall apart. 

Then he does something even more astonishing. Check this out:

“We have always chosen to place humankind, in the broadest sense of the word, above all else. From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and the end of totalitarian regimes, that is what has defined Europe.

It’s the choice we have made time and again and it’s what has set us apart from others. It’s not some naïve choice where we delegate our lives to industrial heavyweights on the grounds that they’re too powerful. That doesn’t align with Europe’s choices and humanism. It’s the choice not to delegate our lives to powers of state control, which have no respect for the freedom of rational individuals. It means believing in individuals who are free and endowed with reason. It means believing in knowledge, freedom, and culture. It means the constant tension between tradition and permanence and modernity. Being European involves an imbalance, and that is what we must defend. This humanism is very fragile but it is what sets us apart from others. And I’m here to argue that that’s what is at stake right now. We must defend it because, as I was saying, liberal democracy is not a given. I’m saying this today, on a very important day, and I’m thinking of our Portuguese friends, 50 years to the day after the Carnation Revolution.”

In other words, he reminds the French, Europe, and all of us, of the power of democracy. In particular, of France’s beautiful and sophisticated conception of it, which is the most intellectually advanced in the world, humanist, existentialist, universalist democracy.

Politicians don’t give speeches like this. But they should. I said at the time it was an incredibly powerful moment, and I think I was right, because it sort of began to crack open people’s minds a little bit, reminding them how grave and momentous the choices that were before them really were.

If you doubt how powerful that is, imagine Biden, or any American politician, saying similar things. They don’t, from humanism to enlightenment to all of humanity and so on. They barely have the courage to talk about fascism. They’ll never admit they failed. Macron did all that, and it changed France’s national discourse, immediately.

That brings us to step number two.

Front by Front

Just after Macron gave that speech, something remarkable happened. Seeing the writing on the wall, and perhaps impelled by Macron’s warning, too, shocked that the far right had won much of the vote in the European Parliamentary elections (not to be confused with the first round of the French Presidential elections), the left and center began to form a new coalition, the very next day. It did so at light speed, in a matter of weeks.

It was called the New Popular Front, for a reason, which matters, too—the original Popular Front was a coalition of just such parties between World War I and World War II, to stem rising authoritarian and fascist movements in France. 

So who was in it this time around? France Unbowed, which is the hard left party, the Communists, the Socialists, who are relatively centrist in France, les Ecologistes, aka the green party, and many more.

And then something, I know I keep saying this, but it’s true, even more remarkable happened.

They created a “Republican Front” together with Macron’s party. And all this happened, let me underscore the point, in weeks. With lightning swiftness. Not months, which there weren’t, anyways. That’s doubly astonishing, how fast they managed to make all this happen. 

So what effect did it have, this front-by-front strategy? 

Pundits in the English-speaking world, the Anglo world, are chalking this victory up to “tactical voting,” but that’s not what happened here at all—something deeper and far more intense did. The New Popular Front agreed to withdraw its candidates where they’d draw votes from Macron’s Party, Renaissance, and Macron, astonishingly, agreed to do the same. 

Whichever candidate had the best likelihood of winning, it was agreed, would run, solely, against the far-right, thus maximizing democracy’s chances of survival. And that was no joke, no stunt, no mere spectacle. It is the linchpin of how this victory came to be. “As of 5 July 2024, this Republican front resulted in the withdrawal of more than 130 of the Front's candidates, along with about 80 candidates of Macron's party and presidential camp.”

This is absolutely amazing. See the difference between this and tactical voting? This made tactical voting far less necessary. Creating a unified front like this was a step far beyond tactical voting, in a sense, it’s very opposite: parties of all kinds coming together to say, “you don’t have to vote tactically, because we are unified in preventing a political collapse. You can just vote for us, period, and that way we can win.”

The Republican Front saved French democracy. Even now, there’s sniping from the left that it withdrew more candidates than Macron’s party did, so it wasn’t a true “front,” and you can judge for yourself whether that level of sniping’s true—in the real world, though, this was very much a true political Republican Front, and it worked…

A “front,” meant to literally save the Republic, and it did.

I referenced one of my favorite teenage albums above, by a band called Front 242. It was called Front by Front, and it was a kind of reference to how anti-fascist politics used to work. That’s precisely what we saw here, and it was a remarkable thing to see in action.

Here’s a timeline, to sum up the speed of this.

April 25 — Macron’s Civilizational Warning Speech

June 9th — French far right sweeps EU elections

June 10th — New Popular Front launched

June 30th — first round of French election

June 3rd — Republican Front formed

July 7th — second round of French election

Amazing speed, no?

The Surge

What did this lightning-fast creation of a New Popular Front amongst the left and towards the center, and then the creation of a Republican Front, from the center and establishment with the left—what did all that do?

It helped massively increase voter turnout, while not splitting the vote.

Now because people didn’t have to go through the complexities of tactical voting, which is wearisome, they were far more likely to vote. Turnout in this election was spectacularly high, and there are several key reasons, one being that Macron’s warning seems to have worked, especially after the far-right won the first round, but the second is that creating a unified front made it dramatically more likely that people were energized, motivated, and inspired to vote.

Because that sense of unity is an incredibly powerful thing.

That brings me to step three.

The Emergency

French democracy is the most intellectually sophisticated on earth—you can see that in the beauty of Macron’s speech, in the many, many different ideas so many parties bring to the table, and so on. Politically, though, French democracy is…sort of halfway. It’s not as advanced as, say Switzerland, which is in fact run by a council, a fact few know. It’s not proportionally representative, like many other European countries are.

But what French democracy does have—and this makes it significantly more advanced than American Democracy, for example—is two rounds of Presidential voting. The explicit idea is to let people vote with their emotions the first time, blow off steam, come to their senses, and then cast the “real” vote. And that, too, worked.

It provided a crucial emergency mechanism—a sort of escape hatch. If the results were only binding after the first round, France today would be a far-right country. So imagine, for example, what might’ve happened if Britain had had two rounds of Brexit referendums, spaced a year apart—which is how referendums happen in, say, Switzerland, a model called “serial referenda,” again, because decisions that important and crucial aren’t to be taken lightly, in the heat of a single moment. Might not’ve destroyed itself. Imagine if American Presidential elections had two rounds. Would we really have had Trump? Maybe, but the risk would’ve been less.

So this more sophisticated model of democracy saved France’s bacon, and it teaches us all that the way we design democracies matters, more and more intensely, in a world that’s more volatile and destabilized year by year. Democracies are becoming fragile, because the way they were designed is becoming obsolete, built for another era.

Here’s the point. None of these things would have worked on their own.

All of them played a crucial role in saving democracy in France. Macron’s warning. The creation of a New Popular Front. The establishment agreeing, reluctantly, to join in and create a Republican Front, which, by the way, is an old term in France, employed when there’s a genuine threat to the Republic. And the two round mechanism, which, interestingly, was invented by a French mathematician, centuries ago, Condorcet, who paved the way for modern thinking about different forms of voting in democracies. 

If any of those things hadn’t happened, today, France would’ve fallen from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy,” aka one where fanatics have taken power. No two rounds? The various fronts probably would’ve come too late. No fronts? Even two rounds wouldn’t have mattered, because the vote would’ve been split. No historic Macron speech? The establishment wouldn’t have reluctantly joined the rest to create a unified front.

See how remarkable all that is? That is big H History being made before our eyes, this series of astonishing events, which culminated in a shock victory for democracy. All of it was improbable, and that is why the final outcome was so surprising. No, victory wasn’t guaranteed—the far right was expected to cruise to power precisely because nobody much expected all that.

But by doing all the above, the French have also given the world an object lesson, perhaps this era’s first, in what post-neo-fascist politics look like. How they work. What they must do. Let me distill the key points of that lesson.

  • The center and left must put aside their differences, so they can win. Later, they can bicker over who gets what cabinet position or whatnot, but if everyone loses except the fanatics, then there’s nothing to even squabble over, is there? In America’s case, you can literally see all this disintegrating over the issue of Biden’s fitness for office.
  • Unity is absolutely crucial. The side of democracy loses because it’s fragmented. And it’s fragmented because the center won’t make room for the left, while the left won’t make many concessions to the centre. All of this must stop. Without unity, democracy loses.
  • All of this should go hand-in-hand with warning people in frank, brutal, and realistic terms about what’s at risk, just as Macron did in the beginning of this process.

None of that’s particularly difficult, at least in theory. But it’s hard in practice, because we haven’t done it for a very long time.

Remember the name of the New Popular Front, harkening back to the 1920s and 30s? That’s the last time, really, that politics operated this way, like my favourite teenage band once put it, front by front. But this how anti-extremists and anti-fanatical politics worked then, and this is how they must work now, too.

We should all thank France today. For teaching us crucial lessons in how to save democracy in the 21st century. It’s sophisticated, beautiful, and elegant expression of democracy is our civilization’s most advanced, and that is why it was so well protected in the end, against collapse—and yet, even for all that power, history, finesse, it still had to take a series of emergency measures, each one more improbable than the last, to save its democracy. It did so, in a matter of weeks, and triumphed. 

And that teaches us something that has never mattered more. We don’t have to be doomed to just repeat history. We can make it instead, like France just did.

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