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France’s gerontocratic nightmare

By Friday 20 May 2022 No Comments

Macron may have won, but it’s the elderly who will rule

By Emmanuel Todd,  is a French historian, sociologist, political scientist and author.

The results of the first round of the 2022 French presidential elections give a surprising impression of order. Three poles, each with its own fairly simple socio-demographic and geographical structure, seem to emerge: the Macron vote, the Le Pen vote and the Mélenchon vote. The media establishment has reached peak panic, flapping about because the second round is now reduced to a dire choice between the extreme Right and Macron. And yet there is a sense that France’s political sociology is reshaping itself towards more stability. France appears to be fairly united culturally, far less obsessed with Islam than expected, gradually reorganising itself along class, education and age lines.

Three dominant electorates

Emmanuel Macron voters are defined by their fear of change, and by a firm conviction that nothing untoward will happen to them even if the course of France’s Europeanist, fake-open markets does not change. They constitute a kind of wide conservative party. General trends show them to be the most well-off and oldest of the French population, tending to live in the western half of the country. This isn’t correlated to the West retaining its old ethnographic characteristics: religious practise has fallen sharply and its original familial system has largely disappeared. It is because the West is distanced from those problems which have an epicentre in mid-Europe. Western Paris’s bourgeois suburbs are as present as Brittany in this configuration.

The structure of the Le Pen vote looks equally straight-forward. You find it in the North-East and the South, the areas where the industrial fabric has broken down. This is not new. Looking closer at the results, by social category, education and age, Marine Le Pen’s electorate is economically disadvantaged, not just by low incomes, but also in terms of education. These voters are mostly young working people. The Le Pen vote is the stable second pole.

The Mélenchon vote is the most interesting. It is largely, but not entirely, made up of people who went through higher education. I have long wondered what caused the strong south-western imbalance in the Mélenchon vote, something which became particularly pronounced in 2017 in Toulouse. There is definitely a southern pull today, and this is mainly based on a generally higher educational level. Yes, Mélenchon came out on top in Seine-Saint-Denis, the northern Paris suburbs inhabited mainly by French people of immigrant origin and modest means, but it’s essentially in large university cities that its rise is striking: Rennes, Nantes, Toulouse, Montpellier, Strasbourg… Mélenchon has demolished Macron among the graduate crowd.

The 2017 Macron vote was stratified, simultaneously by income and educational level. Half of all agrégés (l’agrégation is a competitive examination that gives access to the best jobs in the French educational system) voted for Macron. Macron was, therefore, the candidate who embodied domination in its two main dimensions, economic and educational. This is now over. There is still a narrow majority of high-educated people voting for Macron, but they’re balanced by a majority of poorly educated people who do not have a high-school diploma. The average educational level of Mélenchon voters is now slightly higher than that of the Macron ones.

A significant characteristic of the Mélenchon vote, however, is that income is not correlated to education level. Mélenchon voters are both well-educated and underprivileged (but not altogether poor.) The perfect Mélenchonista voter, to misquote Max Weber, is a young graduate in straitened circumstances. Yes, French Muslims did vote more for Mélenchon than other segments of the population, but this only accounts for about 40%, of the total; while, as a group, French Muslims are already split by variables of class and education.

The geographical evolution of the Macron vote is fascinating. Back in 2017, I found the strongest ever correlation between the Macron and Le Pen votes in our Départements: -0.93 (such a coefficient fluctuates between -1 and +1). I’d never seen one that close in my entire researcher career. A full 86% of Macron vote occurrences were explained by the Le Pen vote (itself extremely stable compared to previous elections). This meant that, knowing the Le Pen vote, we could predict the Macron vote almost exactly. This also meant that the Macron vote was fundamentally triggered by hostility to Le Pen, irrespective of any manifesto, and this from the 2017 first round. 

In other words, Macronism is essentially an anti-Lepenism – an empty ideology with no platform. This is the key to understanding why, once elected, Macron was soon all over the place, taking unpredictable, often brutal decisions that led the country to insurrection by the time of the Yellow Vests crisis. Macron was dangerous because he was empty.  

Let’s not get carried away, though. Emmanuel Macron was created by the École Nationale d’Administration, a fulcrum of French economic conformism, a intellectual universe which allows its deeply statist denizens to believe themselves to be free-marketeers; a place first and foremost impervious to any instinctive understanding of the markets. Having achieved power, Macron mostly endorsed his predecessors’ policies, making them a little more radical, a little more arrogant, a little more violent. Nothing he has done is new. The coming of Macron, and the years 2017-2020 in particular, has made a truth visible: at bottom, the fake-free-marketeer ideology has created a vacuum in France, which the concept of nihilism into current political thinking. 

What struck me, in this 2022 first round, was the collapse of the correlation coefficient, linking the Macron-Le Pen vote. It falls to -0.5 (accounted variance falls from 86% to 25%). The diagram above shows a perfect alignment in the départments on the regressive Right in 2017, while in 2022 (the diagram below below) they are apart. Geographically, the Le Pen vote has not moved: it’s the Macron vote that became something else, a conservative, upper middle class, old people’s vote. 

What we now see are three very typical groups of voters in the process of stabilising. The old parties — Socialist, Républican Right and Green — are close to disappearing. There is something very reassuring in this ternary organisation of space, both geographical and mental. It suggests a society in the process of finding a form, an order. 

Three populisms

The surprise is that none of these three major voting blocs (easily circumscribed on the basis of incomeeducation, geography and age) is now represented by an organised party, but by a person, a leader, who makes their respective organisations say whatever they want. The leader can expel the representatives of a specific tendency should they feel like it. The leader, ruling from the top, can survive any group defections. This notion of the leader has a name: populism. We are witnessing the creation of three competing populisms, each of which, of course, claims to represent — this being the very nature of populism — the One True French people. 

Beyond the nature of the leader, the changes of programme and the claim to represent the entire people, an essential element of populism is irresponsibility; this leads to the presentation of absurd economic programmes and untenable promises. This could be because membership of the euro and obedience to European trade regulations makes it impossible to come up with a realistic economic and social programme. The standard of living is falling, as we’ve known since the appearance of the Gilets Jaunes.

We have also realised, as a result of the pandemic, that de-industrialisation puts our country at risk. We no longer can produce certain basic goods, including the medicines and medical equipment needed in the event of a health crisis. We already know that the Ukrainian conflict will endanger our energy and food supply chains. We should, therefore, reindustrialise, not simplistically advocate freezing prices (Mélenchon), barring immigrants from social benefits (Le Pen) or pushing back retirement age to 65 (Macron). The constraints of Europe can only give shape to a political representation which can only express useless populist solutions. The French media-political establishment would certainly agree with my characterisation of Mélenchon and Le Pen as populists — but not Macron. 

Yet Macron is constantly saying things that make no sense (I recommend, before starting on any of Macron’s speeches, a quick re-read of A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic). Take reindustrialisation. During his campaign, Macron only treated it as a secondary theme. But he was also expressing vigorous, almost hysterical pro-EU beliefs. Yet the conditions for reindustrialisation do require protectionism, the competence to create money, and State investment by the state (in conjunction with private sector efforts), all of which the EU forbids. Projects that bear no relation to any concrete reality, agitatedly pushed by a leader subjected to no control: this is populism. Macronisme is the populism of the rich and the pensioners.

In the interests of balance, we should also address the irresponsibility of the other two leaders.

Look at Marine Le Pen, on the same reindustrialisation theme. As she talks about the nation and protectionism, she seems to have a better grasp of economic reality than Macron. But as soon as she mentions banning the Islamic headscarf, she creates a separate category of French citizens who are not really French, but who are immigrants and a burden. This disqualifies her economic reconstruction platform, which is revealed as fundamentally unserious. Refocusing the country towards a renewed industrial era is impossible without uniting the French people, including hard-working Muslims. Immigrants are similarly a part of the labour force who require protection. The economic project of the National Rally is revealed as a mere collection of words: phrases certainly, but not proposals as logical positivism might understand them.

In the case of Mélenchoniste populism, the reality is even simpler. Mélenchon rejects nuclear power. His project would be a fast road to underdevelopment, affecting all economic sectors. If his voters understand reality, Mélenchon’s ideology, sovereigntist one day, Green the next, doesn’t. His far-Left doctrine could best be called narcissism-Leninism, given the personality of the leader. But I am being unfair: Mélenchon’s refusal to demonise Islam as well as immigrants, in an Islamophobic cultural atmosphere, is admirable.

Marx rather than Mohammed

Traits of the current French situation do evoke classic populism ­— but with a difference. And this is related to the three different populisms currently in competition. Classical populism is born from a fluid, unstable electorate in an atomised society. Atomisation is now a fact in a French society once powerfully structured by regional opposition: there is the large secular Parisian area between Laon and Bordeaux, plus the Mediterranean coastline, and strongly Catholic regions with solid religious practice (the periphery).

But the French Church no longer exists sociologically. Its fall has been mirrored by that of competing secularisms, the last and most important of which was the Communist Party. Abstentionism, especially among young people, should it continue to rise, could lead to true populism. Instead, we see the emergence of three stable forces in a France that is evolving homogeneously albeit while regressing. The standard of living is falling for all social and age categories, a fall very obvious in the mapping of age, income and education in France. The country’s education levels are falling, but as much for the children of managers as as for the children of workers — a democratic decline, so to speak.

What is emerging is a poorer, well-structured France; it is not divided, like the United States, by any culture wars. Class contempt, which is real, does not have the intensity in France that it does in England: we have no equivalent to the expression “chavs”. Moreover, the success of Rassemblement in regularly reaching the second round of presidential elections, with a working-class base (classified as extreme right), suggests that the working classes are by no means broken in France. 

The problem facing France is that this emerging ternary political structure — a conservative party (Macron); a popular party (Le Pen), a petty-bourgeois party (Mélenchon) — is blocked by the institutions and the electoral system from having a fair parliamentary representation. In a German-style proportional system, the existence of these three forces would lead to an Assembly in which all of them would be represented and where MPs would negotiate issue by issue. This would lead to different majorities on issues of reindustrialisation (i.e. on the exit from European constraints), on religious issues, on pensions and on public services and so forth. The system would work by negotiation. But the majority vote eliminates one of the three components necessary for the balance, instead producing a political scenario that doesn’t relate the actual social situation in France. 

Yet let’s not romanticise the virtues of cultural balance.  The fracture between Mélenchon’s and Marine Le Pen’s electorate reflects an ethical division on issues of immigration and Islam, and the like. It would seem that the two groups are today not so much in agreement with each other as with the situation in France. It’s their leaders who really are the true prisoners of Parisian obsessions. They are lagging behind the country’s real fears, which are economic rather than ethnocultural, rather than Islamophobia or anti-Islamophobia.

That Eric Zemmour, with his older voters, achieved a comparatively small score, is a sure sign of this. Marine Le Pen’s relative success arises from a campaign centred on cost of living rather than immigration. If she fails in the runoff, it could be because she reintroduced the Islamic headscarf theme in her campaign between the two rounds. The current French system dynamic downplays religious or ethnic criteria, replaced these by sharply rising economic worries. What we’re seeing is the return to Marx rather than Mohammed. The remarkable efforts of the central elites to keep religious themes alive would not seem to be the central problem. The rise of a gerontocratic power, on the other hand, seems to very worrisome.

The gerontocratic question

Second round voting intentions suggest two categories are poised to vote overwhelmingly for Macron: young people under 25, and more importantly, in terms of proportion and mass, pensioners, 70% of whom plan to vote for Macron. A narrowly-elected second-term President Macron would owe his victory to the retired, since Marine Le Pen would in this hypothesis enjoy a majority among those who actually work. One might say that he would not, in political philosophy terms, be legitimate since he had been elected by the old.

This, effectively, is the definition of a gerontocratic political system. It is quite significant that the current central issue of Macron’s campaign is retirement.  His flagship first -ound measure, which he frantically tried to forget in the last two weeks, was to delay retirement until 65. This project seemed to please pensioners who seem to think, according to polling, that it is quite normal to make younger people work longer than them. 

Classical political philosophy, from Hobbes to Locke, Montesquieu to Rousseau, based its assumptions on political actors with a median age of 25 to 30. When universal suffrage was finally established, first for men, then for women, it also corresponded to a median voter age of about 30. Today we are faced, as a result of  accelerated ageing, with voters above a 50 in median age. 

Many political decisions (or indecisions) taken over the last decades could be the result of this growing gerontocracy. Advanced, extreme free trade has resulted in the crushing of young people’s income and employment opportunities in our “Western democracies”, even those with a higher education. The Heckscher-Ohlin theorem demonstrates that the most scarce local group finds itself most disadvantaged in international exchanges: these are the young people in rich countries.  The old men in power and the politicians who represent them don’t care.

As far back as 2011, Ronald Lee and Andrew Mason sought to model intergenerational money transfers. In rich countries as a whole, average consumption age was still lower than average production age, but not by much, indicating that the old were not yet pumping out an exaggerated share of production. In countries such as Germany and Japan, however, the tipping point was near.  Nine years later, the Covid epidemic saw the confinement of youth and working people to save the elderly, who were the only ones truly threatened en masse by the epidemic.  The Great Lockdown was perhaps the most spectacular manifestation of the new gerontocratic power. An update of Lee and Mason’s calculations is urgently needed. It is perhaps here that the French election takes on its most universal meaning.

We must consider the distinct possibility that France will elect Sunday a president who is against the will of the French of working age. This gerontocratic problem is far more dangerous for democracy than all the worries expressed about populism, the far right, Islam or terrorism.

The unpalatable truth emerging from the growing weight of pensioners in the overall electorate is that, for the first time since 1789, there is a valid argument against universal suffrage and representative democracy. It is not normal that the inactive should decide for the active, who produce goods and children. No society can long survive massive transfers of resources to the old at the expense of the new generations. If we want to save representative democracy, we will have to find an electoral formula that allows the active population to remain in power, or even better, to return to it.

Additional data journalism by Sophie Muscat. Translated from French by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.