In Toulouse, on April 3, during the last open-air campaign rally of Jean Luc Mélenchon, a man held a huge colorful sign on which one could read: “For the Sixth Republic”. The existing republican order, the fifth in France’s post-revolutionary history, had come to its natural end, schoolteacher Damien told me. It’s “far too monarchical, far too autocratic,” he said. “Might as well proclaim a Third Empire!”
Flore, who brought a sign made by her nine-year-old daughter, said part of the appeal of Mélenchon was that he knew how to take good influences wherever they came from. the Citizens’ initiative referendum The proposal – allowing citizens to propose legislation if they can collect enough signatures for a referendum – was inspired by the Revolución Ciudadano in Ecuador, she explained.
Mélenchon had first formally elaborated what the Sixth Republic could mean in 2010, when he wrote a small book whose title could be translated as Take them all out! Quick, citizen revolution. “The Citizen Revolution,” writes Mélenchon, “is the concept proposed in Ecuador by Rafael Correa during the 2006 presidential election, which he won. This revolution was at first constitutional. It gave full powers to the National Constituent Assembly by referendum. This meant, explains Mélenchon, a civic revolution in “institutions, social relations and the dominant culture”.
The concept of citizenship is essential to this strategy – and it is something which, according to Mélenchon, has been undermined in France. “I use the intellectual definition of citizenship,” he stresses. “Being able to state not what is good for oneself but what is good for everyone.”
“What I have observed in revolutionary countries is that most people do not join a movement for ideological reasons, or to carry out a particular project. [political] program,” he insists. On the contrary, movements are emerging to address “concrete problems that the great and the powerful have definitively proven incapable of solving”.
“The revolutions of our time, he concludes, have a social fuel and a democratic engine”.
But in the Fifth French Republic, the people are not sovereign. In 1958, Charles de Gaulle came to power in the context of the Algerian civil war. His supporters, including a group of military officers in Algeria colonized by France, believed that he was the only one who could keep Algeria French. He was brought to power under the threat of a coup, led by a putsch involving officers in Algiers. At one point plans were made to land paratroopers in Paris and overthrow the government. Instead, parliament withdrew and invested de Gaulle with the power to rule by decree for six months before he produced his new constitution. The text of the new constitution was hastily drafted, then presented to the public to vote for its ratification a month later. Worried about what they believed to be the democratic instability and excesses of the Fourth Republic, the framers of the 1958 constitution sought to limit the power of the legislature. To do this, they made the president the supreme ruler of the country, with the power not only to approve and enforce laws, but also to write them. The only crime he could be charged with under the Constitution was high treason.
I spoke with Raquel Garrido, close adviser to Mélenchon and mainstay of the popular TV show Drop your post! A lawyer by profession, she is also a regional councilor for the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris.
“In constitutional law, we speak of ‘responsibility’ when the person who holds the executive power is responsible for the exercise of his power before another power, most often a legislative power,” Garrido told me.
“In France, there is criminal immunity for the President of the Republic for the acts he performs while he is President. This explains, for example, why Nicolas Sarkozy cannot be judged or even less condemned for, for example, having cheated in [his presidential election campaigns].” This is different from the “political immunity” that the president has. “In France”, says Garrido, “the president is not responsible to any authority, [nor] before parliament, as in all other parliamentary models.
Is there an impeachment process in the constitution of the Fifth Republic?
“The answer is no. But there is an article, in theory. It’s called misery, but that’s for very severe cases. . . and it’s never [been used]it is impossible to implement.
This was not the case under the Fourth Republic. “It was an invention of the Fifth [Republic]“, explained Garrido. “The history of France, since the departure of the monarchy, has known moments of democratic advances, then moments of retreat.”
“Today in France there is a current of the far right that is very hostile to the idea of popular sovereignty. . . . When you look at the supporters of Zemmour, for example, it’s the whole royalist camp.
The conflict between monarchy and democracy is a characteristic of Mélenchon’s rhetoric. The last five years of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency have only fueled this theme.
In 2015, Macron, then Minister of the Economy in the government of François Hollande, gave an interview in which he spoke of an “absence” in French politics. It was, Macron said, “the figure of the king, which I fundamentally don’t think the French wanted to see die. . . . Since then, we have tried to fill this void by placing other figures: these were the Napoleonic and Gaullist moments. The rest of the time, French democracy does not fill this space.
As president, Macron has pursued what Mélenchon calls an “authoritarian drift.” In 2020, when the French government ordered a lockdown for the second time in the face of rising COVID-19 infections, Mélenchon wrote a blog post denouncing “our society’s addiction to permanent states of exception”, highlighting the specter of terrorism and public action. health emergencies. This was particularly offensive given potential democratic alternatives like massive investments in rebuilding the capacity of French hospitals, as well as the use of state power to organize pandemic containment methods like case tracking and financial support for isolated sick people.
The last three years under Macron, Mélenchon charged, have seen the fastest curtailment of freedoms in a long time. It was not just the product of Macron’s actions, Mélenchon concluded – although he was a particularly adept practitioner of it – but the “heart of economic liberalism”, a system that sees human beings as pigs, cows and chickens, nothing but “batteries, exclusively occupied in producing and consuming.
When Mélenchon spoke in Lille, in the north of the country, on April 5, he called for an end to the “presidential monarchy”. The crowd roared in approval. “There is no democracy without democrats. There is no Republic without Republicans,” said Mélenchon.
The Popular Union, the movement launched from Mélenchon’s France Insoumise vehicle for the 2022 election, has a very similar agenda to its 2017 campaign. It even shares the same name – the future in common, or “our common future” – although it has been expanded. In the most recent edition, the first section explores the Sixth Republic and proposes sweeping changes and replacement of the country’s institutions.
The solution, then, is a constituent assembly – a democratic process where the people draft a new constitution. Mélenchon’s plan is to establish this assembly by calling a referendum under Article 11 of the current constitution.
This referendum will decide on the establishment of the process, including the deliberative process specific to the constituent assembly. After two years, the constitution he produces will again be submitted to the people for a referendum. If the people reject the constitution, the assembly will continue its work. The assembly would also ban any lawmakers from the two former legislative bodies (the National Assembly and the Senate) from involvement. Then, once the new constitution is established, members of the constituent assembly would also be barred from standing as candidates in any subsequent election.
“The Fifth Republic has had its day. Abstention became the majority in most elections. A democracy without the people is no democracy at all,” the program proclaims.
The fight for the Sixth Republic, and the new constitution that accompanies it, is a fight for the re-democratization of France. Today, polls are predicting record levels of abstention – almost a third of voters say they will not vote.
I spoke with Mathis, originally from Rennes, who sold programs in the hall outside the hall in Lille. He was in Chile in 2019, when a powerful social movement took to the streets against conservative President Sebastián Piñera. One of the results of this campaign was the convening of a constituent assembly at the time of the 2021 presidential election. And this despite the hostility that the constituent assembly had to face from the president, who granted its existence only under intense pressure, and from the media, which questioned its legitimacy. For Mathis, the interest of the Sixth Republic is that people become “democratic everyday actors”, opposing the “sclerotic public life” of today.
Garrido, who visited Chile when drawing up that country’s constituent assembly, said the difference with an assembly under a Mélenchon presidency would be that it would have the full support of the government. In Chile, “they had a president hostile to the constituent assembly,” she says. “The main difference is that we would have an ally in the [presidency.]”
One of the centerpieces of the new constitution that Mélenchon would defend is the right to dismiss elected officials if they do not respect their mandate. On April 6, Mélenchon’s spokesman, MP Alexis Corbière, addressed about two hundred people in a meeting room in Bobigny, a northern suburb of Paris. “The Fifth Republic is making a system where you can rule without the people,” he said. The reason abstention is so high, he said, is that the people have no right to recall their representatives when they betray them. “During the French Revolution, this right existed!
The National Assembly, he said, is not a place where the people really have a role to play in government. Instead, MPs like him have used the forum to be tribunes for another system. “If we don’t change these institutions. . . the worst is yet to come,” he said.
François Hollande, socialist president from 2012 to 2017, came to power promising to be “the enemy of finance”. Instead, he pushed through the notorious “El Khomri law” backed by the employers’ association MEDEF, which rewrote the French labor code to the detriment and anger of many workers. In 2015, he perfectly summed up the reality of the French Fifth Republic: “An unpopular president can operate with great capacity, with great freedom. . . this is what makes the difference between our institutions and those of our neighboring countries.
It is the fruit of the institutions of the Fifth Republic. As Mélenchon faces the polls for probably the last time today, France has a chance to completely sweep away these institutions and replace them with new ones.
“Mélenchon”, told me Garrido, who has been at his side for more than a decade, with confidence, “wants to be the next and the last president of the Sixth Republic”.