‘Preferendum:’ Macron’s innovative solution to move France beyond political crisis

The French president met with the leaders of opposition parties in search of specific agreements and proposed a series of referendums with multiple questions

French President Emmanuel Macron gives a speech last Monday at the Élysée Palace.POOL (via REUTERS)
Marc Bassets

Preferendum: this is the popular neologism at the beginning of the political year in France. Lacking an absolute majority in the National Assembly and in the absence of parliamentary allies that would allow him to govern in comfort, Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday reached out to the leaders of the opposition, from the extreme left to the extreme right. The French president convened a marathon meeting in which, among other proposals, recourse to a referendum was tabled. But Macron’s idea was innovative: a preferendum, a consultation with multiple questions, akin to holding several referendums at once.

Macron had promised a “major political initiative” after the bumpy adoption of the pension reform last spring and the outbreak of violence at the beginning of the summer in response to the police shooting of a teenager in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. And that is what the president attempted with the conclave he convened at the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis. From 3:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m., Macron locked himself in a closed-door meeting with the heads of the main parties. On the agenda, three broad topics: the world, the institutions, the nation. No time limit, no timetables. No telephones or advisors. No press conferences or cameras.

The president explained his move in an interview with the weekly Le Point: “Faced with major geopolitical, climatic, and technological upheavals, faced with the challenges that our country has recently experienced and faced with the risks of division, I consider it my responsibility to propose to all the political forces represented in the assemblies that we must try to act together.”

After the meeting, the leader of Europe Ecology – The Greens, Marine Tondelier, summed up: “We came, we saw, and we were disappointed.” Jordan Bardella, president of the National Rally, Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, said the discussions had been “frank,” but added there had been “no conclusions for now.”

A favored tool of Charles de Gaulle

The Constitution of the Fifth Republic provides for the organization of nationwide referendums on the proposal of the president. They have been called on 10 occasions since 1958, when the Constitution was adopted. Half of them took place under the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, between 1958 and 1969. This is no coincidence.

“De Gaulle used the referendum in a plebiscitary perspective,” explains constitutionalist Jean-Philippe Derosier. “Most of those called by De Gaulle, except for the last one, which led to his departure, were organized between 1958 and 1965, before the election of the president by direct universal suffrage came into force.” Until then, the French president was elected by a college of electors. Derosier, a professor at the University of Lille, adds: “For him, it was a way of legitimizing himself. Subsequently, presidents no longer needed this additional legitimization and had more to lose than to gain. The referendums either met with total disinterest - like the 2000 referendum to reduce the presidential mandate from seven to five years, which had two-thirds abstention - or produced a seismic shock.”

One example of this was the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, in which the yes vote won by only two points, or the EU Constitutional Treaty of 2005, which was voted down. Since the latter, no president has dared to call a referendum. Neither has Macron, who since he came to power in 2017 has mentioned the option several times but has never taken the plunge, aware that referendums often turn into plebiscites on whoever calls them.

This is why government spokesman Olivier Véran suggested the option of a preferendum on the eve of the Saint Denis meeting. It is a concept that has been proposed by organizations such as Mieux Voter (Better Vote), which advocates a shift away from the “binary and reductive” answers of traditional referendums. How? The association suggests instead of answering yes or no to a proposed law, the options could include, for example, “excellent,” “good,” “acceptable,” or “rejectable,” as explained a 2019 article in Le Monde.

Derosier, however, stresses that the French Constitution would not admit such a referendum. It would though allow for several simultaneous referendums on the same day. This format, according to Véran, would allow voters to “let themselves go on one issue” - that is to say, whether to sanction the president - and to answer rest of the questions in depth.

The opposition is skeptical of the president’s new “major political initiative,” arguing that political devices devised by Macron to escape from other crises, such as the so-called Grand National Debate in 2019 or the National Council of Refoundation in 2020, did not bear the anticipated fruit. In Saint-Denis, the left proposed a referendum on pension reform. The right and the extreme right, on immigration. Both initiatives have little chance of succeeding while Macron is president.

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