Doubting Democracy

Inspired by Manet's painting "Bar at the Folies-Bergère."By Staff Political Cartoonist Justin Walker

Inspired by “Bar at the Folies-Bergère,” by Edouard Manet
By Staff Political Cartoonist Justin Walker

Last week, the polling institute of famous French university Sciences Po revealed its last poll about the trust relationship between the French and their politicians. With almost forty questions, it aims to reveal the main trends occurring in French politics.

There is a lot to say about this poll. A first part concentrates on how the French perceive their lives. The answers to the poll questions do not inspire optimism, but a stable trend can be observed. It seems that the wave of pessimism linked to the financial and economic crises has passed. With the stabilization of the euro and a new President, the French are ready to turn their back on the crisis and concentrate on recovery. For example, most indicators about careers express a positive trend.

The second part of the poll concentrates on the trust put in political institution. Two trends can be noted. First, the local institutions are still the most trusted – 56% of the people polled trust their mayor, whereas only 31% trust the President, and 21% trust the international organizations. In addition, all institutions have experienced a decline in trust. Specifically, people do not trust the institutions themselves as opposed to the people within the institutions. While the trust in the National Assembly is going down, the French have gained trust in their representatives.

This distrust in institutions is characteristic of a dangerous and growing skepticism about democracy. Two thirds of the people polled believe that experts could govern better than politicians. This answer implies many consequences for democracy. The fall of the communist regimes has left only one ideology on the globe, and the absence of ideological debate is driving the democracies towards an all-mighty rationalism that only accepts one true answer to a political problem. Of course, politics is not an exact science, and the government of experts, such as we can observe it in the European Union, often leads to technocracy taking over democracy.

Paradoxically, a greater number (though still a minority) of people who were questioned express their trust in the efficiency of democracy, and almost three fifths are interested in politics. Another indicator gives us the key of the French perception of democracy. While they support and are interested in democracy, they have lost trust in the institutions that are part of this democracy. The unions, the media, the banks, and the political parties are all below 40% in the approval ratings.

The third part of the poll is about the politicians themselves. Four of them are tested. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy begins to benefit from the traditional gain in popularity for all retired politicians. Front National leader Marine Le Pen is benefiting from the political context. With the ideological hesitation of the governing Parti Socialiste (PS) and the drama of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) President election, the FN is seen as the main opposition party in France and its leader is gaining the trust of the one third of the people polled.

On the opposite, the trend is negative for the majority party, the PS. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and President François Hollande are losing the trust of many supporters. This can be explained in two ways. First, the executive branch is not seen as a good fit for its role. 60% of the people polled said they were “worrying” about Hollande. The Prime Minister does not do better: only one third of the people polled trust his function.

The second and, in my opinion, the main reason for the negative opinion about the executive branch is ideological. On the left, they have the trust of many left-wing electors that were hoping for a profound change in policies, especially with respect to economics. On the right, more and more people support right-wing values: supporters of gay marriage have fallen from 60% to 52% in one year, while the supporters of death sentence have risen from 35% to a worrying 45% in the same time. Two thirds of the people polled believe that there are too many immigrants in France.

This is obviously an ideological turning point. After the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy, it appears that people were opposing his personality rather than his ideas. The main left-wing decisions of President Hollande have been heavily criticized: a rise in taxes, including tax increases for businesses. Meanwhile, people are more supportive of free enterprise and less of State redistribution. And the share of supporters wanting to reform the capitalist system has dropped.

It is well known that in time of crisis, the opposition always benefits from the discontent of the population and France is no exception to this. But now, after eight months as a President, François Hollande has already deceived a large share of his electorate. Many left-wing supporters are disappointed by his moderation, while right-wing opponents are united against the President’s social reforms. It finally seems that the fight of personalities that is the Presidential election has left room for ideological debates, and reveals that most French people seem to doubt their democratic institutions.

Find all polling data (in French) here

Hugo Argenton is LJP’s French columnist. He lives in Lille, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.

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