Echoes of 1958
In 1958, French democracy nearly collapsed. The brutal war against movements for Algerian independence almost saw a military-led coup take over the country as civil unrest hit an all-time high.
Recent setbacks in Indochina, Vietnam, and the Suez Crisis had conservative and military factions in France concerned about national honor and international prestige. With vocal groups contending that French power could not degrade any further, there was a sense that the country could not endure another international setback.
General opposition to France's colonial ambitions, economic disparities, and the active presence of socialist and conservative political groups triggered mass unrest. As protests intensified, the military's dissatisfaction with the government grew. In response, military chiefs overthrew the French administration in Algeria, concerned that Paris would concede Algeria to liberation movements. Mere days later, French paratroopers took control of Corsica. Fears of a socialist takeover surged, leading troops to prepare for a march on Paris, with a clear message: unless De Gaulle was made Prime Minister, they would force the issue.
Upon his ascension, De Gaulle established a new republic, emphasizing the need for a stable government with robust executive authority. Notably, he introduced Article 49.3, which allowed the Executive to bypass the National Assembly to enact certain laws. This, however, gave the National Assembly the option to move for no-confidence votes. With a newly centralized government structure and strengthened executive authority under the Fifth Republic's 1958 constitution, De Gaullists believed their reforms would prevent further crises, even if it meant potential civil unrest.
The contemporary French Republic owes its stability since 1958 to De Gaulle’s adjustments, yet in 2023, France faces challenges that mirror the past.
French foreign policy, especially concerning Africa, is under scrutiny. The withdrawal of their 1,500 troops from Niger, in the wake of a coup that saw democratically elected president Mohamed Bazoum taken captive, is a significant blow. Similar coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, leading to further withdrawals, force France to confront a new reality. The nation must act fast to retain international influence. France dedicated its forces in their former colonies to fighting Islamic extremists, and upon their departure, Russian troops replaced them, often the Wagner Group. Extremism and violence in the region are only growing under the current circumstances, yet many Africans living under these military governments view France as the problem, not a solution. Macron battles opposition at home, challenging the move as another step under his administration toward France losing global status.
Beyond Africa, military influence in Europe has been lackluster until recent months. In 2022, Macron hemmed and hawed, offering to enter diplomatic talks with Vladimir Putin and insisting the Russians should not “be humiliated” over a historic mistake. The approach does not bear fruit. This summer, a rapid about-face aligns with a realization that for France to be a global player, they must spend and act. A long-term plan to supply aid to Ukraine and motions to expand NATO and the EU might solidify France’s position as a European leader. Macron must strike an impressive balancing act on the international stage and at home since, as of last year, only 47% of citizens support financial and military aid. A number that could decrease as economic ails continue to plague the nation.
Domestically, unrest has marred the last year of French political life. Macron’s invocation of the infamous Article 49.3 has led to workers organizing protests against Macron’s initiative to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The reform was unavoidable as 14% of the French GDP goes to supporting pensioners, making France one of the largest global spenders in the field. Still, the program’s contributions to the deficit made it untenable. Macron’s government will continue to see the consequences of the unpopular action.
As gas prices experience worrying increases, the government’s inaction leaves French citizens discontent, as 70% blame the state for the issue and prefer a tax decrease at the pumps. The cap of €1.99 a liter for the foreseeable future could be sufficient to keep French citizens at bay. Gas taxes and prices once triggered the Yellow Vest protests in 2018, and the movement still appears during political unrest. To maintain order, controlling these prices will be a chief priority.
How, then, does France navigate through this situation unscathed?
Domestically, the key will be budgetary fortitude. Increases in military spending, injections of money into social safety nets, and bearing the cost of gasoline price caps make cutting budget deficits to sufficient levels an incredibly challenging task. If they do not control government spending, they could see a macro-level failure of government bonds, leading to an economic crisis. Injecting money into consumers’ pockets and artificially keeping gas prices down could lead to demand-side inflation, causing civil unrest, as the French often see when faced with economic issues. The government bases the 2024 budget outlook on optimistic growth outlooks. Their projected 4.6% budget deficit in 2024 needs to decrease the 3% of GDP level the EU requires by 2027, or France risks current inflation becoming a crisis. The current budget may prove enough to balance these challenges, but time will tell.
Internationally, the French must stay focused. Their main priorities are supporting Ukraine, uniting and expanding the EU, and strengthening NATO. African reform came too late, but rallying coalitions in the EU and the UN to build peace, security, and democracy in the nations left in the state’s realm of influence could let them take on a significant role beyond military assistance. Any action in this area inevitably puts them on a collision course with China and Russia, but they must not let that deter them.
Flexibility will be a great ally in these chaotic times. Now more than ever the West needs France, and if Macron maintains order and focuses on strategic targets, then history will not repeat itself.