I do not that massive and disruptive protests are very much a part of French political culture.
I do think that part of this comes from centuries old cultural traditions, but André Sapir makes a cogent argument that this is an artifact of France’s highly centralized government presided over by its imperial Presidency:
Outside France, many economists tend to ascribe the yellow vest movement to the fact that the French are rebellious and that France is politically unmanageable. But what is special about France is not its people but its institutional system, which differs vastly from those of other European countries. Three dimensions seem to me particularly relevant in the current context.
The first concerns the political system. Under the current constitution, power is far more personalised than elsewhere. France is not a parliamentary democracy like Britain or Germany. Sure, all three have a lower and an upper chamber, but political parties play a fundamentally different role in France.
There, the dominant party is a creation of the president – like the RPR was a creation of Jacques Chirac, the Socialist party was created by François Mitterrand, and La République en Marche is the creation of Emmanuel Macron, around whom the party entirely revolves.
Elsewhere, the history of the major political parties is clearly distinct from the persona of their current leader. The CDU in Germany or the Conservative party in Britain are not the creation of Angela Merkel or Theresa May.
The second French peculiarity concerns the role of intermediate institutions, and in particular labour unions. Among the large European countries, France is where the rate of union membership is the lowest. In 2015, it was 36% in Italy, 25% in Britain, 18% in Germany, 14% in Spain, 12% in Poland and barely 8% in France. And the current practice further weakens the role of labour unions in the management of social conflicts.
Despite this situation, France is the most centralised of the six biggest EU countries. According to the OECD, the share of sub-national entities in total public expenditure is only 20% in France against 50% in Spain, 47% in Germany, 32% in Poland, 30% in Italy and 26% in Britain.
The conclusion is incontestable. France is the European country where there is the most rebellion against its leader, because his power is the most personalised and the most centralised among the six big EU countries.
The personalisation of power, the weakness of Parliament – with a dominant party dominated by a single person – and the weak role of intermediate bodies like labour unions all combine to create a situation where citizens have no recourse to make their voice heard other than taking to the streets and demanding the resignation of the president.
Many French economists rightly favour reforming France’s social model towards greater flexibility and greater security, like in Scandinavian countries. But they should remember that these countries have very high unionisation rates (67% in Denmark and Sweden) and extensive territorial decentralisation of public expenditures (with sub-national entities accounting for 65% of such expenditures in Denmark and 50% in Sweden). Attempting to copy the Scandinavian social system without changing the French institutional system would not be very productive.
France is not unmanageable. It simply needs a better governance. Why not start with a greater decentralisation of public expenditures? A reasonable objective could be to increase the share of sub-national entities in public expenditures from 20% to 30% by 2025, and further to 40% by 2030. But this cannot be done without a substantial institutional reform to ensure that decentralised public expenditures are both efficient and of good quality.
I think that a lot of this is history, mass protests in France have been a feature of their political economy since (at least) the French Revolution, but I do think that the weakness of political parties and the centralization of the government have exacerbated this phenomenon.
H/t naked capitalism.