A crisis of democracy or protest as usual – What are 2023 rallies bringing to France?

Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the author and do not represent the organisation’s position on the analysed topic.

1. 16 weeks of protests, a sign of social crisis
2. A “failing” democracy?
3. Towards a democratic renewal?
4. Conclusion

France has recently, in April-June 2023, been the scene of large-scale demonstrations, with more than 1.2 million people taking to the streets at times (2.8 million according to the unions). They were marked by considerable violence, material damage and were widely covered by the media, including internationally. These demonstrations, which have been going on for more than three months, are both an investment by the people in politics and a harsh criticism of current democracy, as they continue the debate on the possible crisis of legitimacy of the institutions and the French democracy. In the following, this blog will explain the origins of the crisis, while highlighting its effects, what it reveals about French democracy, and point out the solutions and ideas proposed to ease tensions.

16 weeks of protests, a sign of social crisis

“Social democracy” complements and nurtures political democracy, focusing on citizens’ participation in public life, cooperation between the executive and the social partners. The expression comes back like an aspiration in the mobilisation against the pension reform. Faced with Emmanuel Macron’s refusal to receive the unions, the secretary general of the main union L. Berger deplored “a form of denial of this social democracy“.

A. Pension reforms and precariousness

The political and syndical opposition to the government’s pension reform, which has been the subject of two motions of censure following the use of the article 49.3 of the Constitution, is not just an expression of opposition to the reform, but of a general discontent linked to precariousness and a sharp rise in inflation. In addition to the very high turnout, this can also be seen in the diversification of the population present at the protests: it is no longer just the working class and employees that are present, but also the middle class and some wealthy classes. Multi-sectorality is on the agenda, as pension reform, inflation and the rising cost of living affect all sections of the population. This link between retirement and precariousness is a key element in understanding the whys and wherefores of the demonstration: economists like Mr Zemmour warn of a drop in the standard of living of retirees, affecting women in particular, a negative impact on the unemployment rate, and the hardship of precarious jobs and the danger their continuation poses to the health of the working class[1]. Thus, the pension reform and the use of 49.3, an instrument that is constitutional but perceived as nondemocratic, have triggered an intense political and social crisis. A crisis that has reopened French wounds: distrust of power, the gap between voters and elected officials, the feeling of brutality coming from above…

B. Crystallizing tensions surrounding the President of the Republic and his Party

These tensions in the streets have a clear tendency to crystallize around the figures of the majority: the Elisabeth Borne, Emmanuel Macron, and more broadly the En Marche party, which represents a critique of an increasingly centralized presidential power. This tendency is rooted in a form of government that was originally parliamentary, but which became presidential under the Fifth Republic, all the more so during the two Macron quinquennats. A key feature of this transfer of power to the executive is the use of Article 49.3 of the Constitution, which allows the National Assembly to be bypassed in order to speed up the decision-making process and to resolve situations where there is no majority and, therefore no clear vote. At this point, the position of the ruling party was central, and allowed for much polarised criticism of the decisions taken.

Despite a good record in managing the COVID-19 crisis, the increased use of emergency procedures under Macron’s leadership has left its mark, including the impression of a decline in democracy and a power grab by the political elite at the expense of the people. The Jean Jaurès Foundation has analysed data from a survey conducted by the Respondi Institute in July 2022 and concluded that, for those dissatisfied with the state of democracy, the main culprits are the political elite and the rich, which is what Emmanuel Macron’s figure is today. Moreover, France is one of the few countries to experience national social movements because the state considers itself to be the guardian of the general interest, which it determines and for which it passes laws. Therefore, when what is voted on does not correspond to the perception of society, the latter directly challenges the State. This dissatisfaction with the current government can also be read from a fully eurocentric point of view; Macron being the centre of discontent, his very pro-EU stance is caught in the same basket. The development of political polarisation and support for the extremes of the left and right goes hand in hand with a rise in euroscepticism, which is the common hobbyhorse of the two protesting parties (La France Insoumise on the left, Rassemblement National on the right).

A “failing” democracy?

A. Crisis of representation and polarisation

French political scientists, on both the left and the right, are unanimous in affirming that the country is going through a crisis of democracy, fuelled by a loss of confidence in the government and elected officials, a general political fatigue and a cruel lack of representation. This can be read as the reason for a certain political polarisation in the French landscape, on the left, on the right, but also in the ecologist party. According to the Opinion Way polling institute at Sciences Po (CEVIPOF), 49% of the population believe that democracy is not working well, with the Prime Minister and the President having the lowest level of trust in political figures. Drastic drop in voter turnout, disconnect between political elites: this loss of a sense of popular representation is not a recent phenomenon, and has been going on for a long time in France. From the Yellow Vest crisis to the second lowest turnout ever recorded in the last presidential election, the system seems to fall down somewhere.

Jean Garrigues, historian and president of the Committee for Parliamentary and Political History, analyses that we are at the peak of a phenomenon of disconnection between political elites and voters, and there is an increasingly strong opposition between institutional legitimacy and popular sovereignty. But this has become even more pronounced with the hyper-presidentialisation of Nicolas Sarkozy and the […] governance of Emmanuel Macron, pointed out Garrigues. At the same time, the last few years have been crucial in terms of the polarisation of political life, with the far left and the far right coming in close behind the president’s party, fuelling heated debates, and mutual accusations.

Both through the theatricality and violence of debates in the assembly, and in the loss of confidence in politics, the polarisation of French political life appears as a crucial new element in the analysis of its democracy. This increasingly uncontrolled rage leads to numerous abuses by the demonstrators, among themselves and against the authorities. The latter also tended to manage the demonstrations in a much more authoritarian way.

B. The use of legitimate force by police and protesters

In this context of radicalisation, the demonstrations turned violent at times, with injuries, arrests, and condemnations from human rights organizations, both from the forces of law and order and from the demonstrators. One of the most telling examples is the environmental demonstration in Saintes Solines in March 2023, where more than 200 demonstrators were injured according to the organizers, around 28 gendarmes according to the public prosecutor’s office. The confrontations were of a rare violence, with Molotov cocktails, continuous firing of tear gas and GM2L grenades, with a very radical part of the demonstrators calling for violence as a means of action. In this environment, and since the beginning of the protests against the pension reform, the human rights defender has observed an acceleration in referrals for violence by the forces of law and order, violations of liberty at checkpoints and arbitrary arrests, to the point where his referral has been made more than 90 times. This use of violence, which both sides claim is “legitimate”, is a clear sign of the failure of a democratic and peaceful state and of social dialogue.

 Police violence has drawn the attention of international organisations and experts observing human rights. The issue was invited to the UN Human Rights Council on 1 May, where France was questioned by many countries, such as Norway and Denmark, on its management of violence and repression of public disorder. Sebastian Roché, Sociologist and political scientist specializing in police issues, explained that “[…] repression should only be used when absolutely necessary and proportionate. It is therefore not possible to fire an LBD grenade in the middle of a crowd without aiming because someone is committing an offence, nor to lock up entire groups in nests, as is currently the case.” Even the Council of Europe is alarmed at the “excessive use of force” in France : it’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic called to respect the right to demonstrate, expressing thatNor are such acts sufficient to deprive peaceful demonstrators of the enjoyment of the right to freedom of assembly”.

The numerous videos of police violence and the statement by the Minister of the Interior, who described the demonstrators as “intellectual terrorists“, are fuelling a strong sense of injustice: many people denounce a police force that is free of its duties, acts with impunity, protected by the silence of the hierarchy, and lacks any independent control. The evidence of unlawful police violence circulating on the networks, while revealing unacceptable realities, also acts as a magnifying glass – obscuring the fact that, despite the erosion of resources and the interference of political power, a certain professionalism is maintained, particularly among the gendarmes and the CRS.

Towards a democratic renewal

Faced with the failure to pass the pension reform through a parliamentary vote and the decision to override the democratic process with Article 49.3, French democracy is showing all its fragility. The motion of censure was not passed by lacking 9 votes, it is a total lack of confidence in the way the government is being run and a very strong opposition to the government which will have to continue without a stable majority and in the face of a very, very strong resistance.

A. Criticism of the “dictatorship of the majority”

The current president was elected with 2.2 million blank ballots and 13.6 million abstentions in the second round of the last presidential election, and barely 28% of the vote in the first round, hence much of the criticism of his ‘relative’ legitimacy. Given his party’s minority in the National Assembly, for many the demonstrations represent a broader critique of the “dictatorship of the majority”, a lifeblood of the French democratic system. So, when talking about democracy, the people want to express their opinion through their elected representatives. And if these are ignored, then it is up to the people to make themselves heard in public opinion. Macron, however, disagrees and recently declared that “the crowd” of demonstrators against the pension reform had “no legitimacy” in the face of “the people expressing themselves through their elected representatives”[1]. Indeed, even if the majority was in favour, it is still a very small majority, highlighting here one of the key weaknesses of democracy, the rule of majority, no matter how narrow it is. 

This raises the question of the binary representation of political views, particularly present in the second round of our presidential election, which led many to choose Macron against the far-right, but not in favour of the centrist candidate. For Pierre Rosenvallon, great jurist, Emmanuel Macron is right to say that he occupies his position in a legitimate way. The electoral expression is a means of decision in a democracy because it has an undeniable arithmetical dimension. There is no such thing as a badly elected person: you can be elected with just one vote. The head of state thus benefits from a legitimacy of status. But this is different from a moral legitimacy, which refers to the notion of justice and the general interest, a legitimacy of exercise, so to speak. The latter is more fragile and only exists if it is socially recognised. Democracy organises the confrontation between these two conceptions of legitimacy, and can only be exercised if there is a form of ‘communion’ between power and society. But in the case of the pension reform, it is clear that Emmanuel Macron has barricaded himself in the fortress of his legal position. If these two legitimacies get too far separated, we are going to end up in a deep crisis.

 B. Some fresh proposals

Since the Yellow Vest crisis, the government has been proposing answers to this situation. However, today’s crisis shows that these attempts have been in vain, and that a wider and deeper renewal of democracy is expected.  If the “great national debate” opened in 2019 aimed to give a voice to the people on the policies carried out, its limits were quickly reached by the lack of consideration given by the government to the initiative. This subterfuge of participatory democracy is now playing a key role in the turn of the protests, leaving the movement with the hope that forcing through will work. More than marginal adjustments to an exhausted system are now required considering the intensity of the democratic crisis.

This episode allowed the country to emerge from an explosive social crisis, but it did not leave a lasting mark on the institutions. In 2022, the legislative elections, which offered only a relative majority to the re-elected president, could have been an opportunity to rethink political life by trying to draw inspiration from Scandinavian or German parliamentary democracies. But the head of state did not renew his political program. In response to this popular frustration with a system that is sometimes seen as out of touch, there are more and more proposals for participatory democracy or binding political solutions, such as a compulsory mandate, to create a real investment by the people in the choice of government. There is also talk of a more representative democracy, without the double choice between two candidates, which would allow a true representation of the diversity of political opinions. It is a question of responding to this lack of political representation, this loss of confidence and legitimacy in the governors: proportional voting, great citizens’ debates, regional assemblies… There are so many proposals, some of which have been tried out, some of which are just on the table, which seek to respond to an increasingly urgent demand to participate in the democratic process and to renew the model of our institutions and our presidential system.


It is important to understand that the strikes and demonstrations in France are not just about pensions. The context of the precariousness of the middle class and the distance of certain politicians from the reality of the French people is giving rise to strong discontent. This is accompanied by a loss of confidence in elected politicians, institutions and the French democratic system, a dynamic that has been underway for several years and has already been expressed by the Yellow Vests. All this anger, concentrated mainly against the actions and the person of Mr Macron, raises the question of the use of violence as a last resort for the protesters. After all other democratic and peaceful means have been exhausted in vain. Political polarisation, dissatisfaction and the lack of an adequate response increase the pressure on both sides and lead to violent clashes unprecedented in the recent history of the country. The question remains as to the possible solutions to this kind of crisis: more and more repression? Or to wait for the wave to subside, with the risk that it will return with a vengeance as soon as the next scandal breaks? New democratic proposals may be necessary to reconcile the people and their elected representatives.

[1] Réformes des retraites : des effets encore incertains, selon des chercheurs en sciences sociales. (2023). La Correspondance Economique.