The Dictator of France

Emmanuel Macron an “authoritarian”? He is the most liberal president of France in forty years!

Emmanuel Macron
French president Emmanuel Macron reviews a Bastille Day parade in Paris, July 14, 2020 (Elysée/Philippe Servent)

What has gotten into Persuasion?

First they published a ridiculous hit piece arguing Spain’s center-left prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, is the greatest threat to democracy since Francisco Franco. Now it’s Emmanuel Macron’s turn.

Robert Zaretsky, a history professor at the University of Houston, writes the French president has become “authoritarian”.

To be fair, Zaretsky recognizes that a measure of autocracy is built into France’s presidential-centric Fifth Republic. On paper, the French president is the most powerful leader in democratic Europe; both ceremonial head of state and chief executive. Every president, from Charles de Gaulle to François Mitterrand, has been accused of dominating French politics in their time.

Macron is no different. Zaretsky marshals little evidence to prove this president (ab)uses the powers of his office more than his predecessors.

Two bills

Zaretsky makes hay out of various statements in which Macron argued for a powerful executive. He gives only two concrete examples of the liberal’s alleged “authoritarianism”, and both are proposed laws:

  1. The first would enable greater scrutiny of Islamist websites as well as transparency in the funding of Islamic organizations, broaden constraints on homeschooling and widen prohibitions on polygamy.
  2. The second would have made it illegal to photograph or videotape police officers with the intent to do “harm”.

The second bill could have criminalized exposing police misconduct and was rightly withdrawn in the face of protests.

That leaves just the first, which I think is justifiable.

The bill was drafted in consultation with Muslim leaders, has been approved by France’s fiercely independent Constitutional Council and is rejected by not just the far right but even mainstream conservatives, who believe it doesn’t go far enough to rein in “Islamist separatism”. At least within France, the proposals are considered a pragmatic and proportionate response to a spate of terrorist attacks as well as the by-now glaringly obvious malintegration of too many French Muslims, many of whom live literally apart from the rest of French society in depressing banlieues on the outskirts of Paris and other big cities.


Zaretsky’s hyperbole is not unique. Other Americans (but few Europeans) have accused the French president of organizing a “crackdown against Muslims,” “flirting with political authoritarianism” and “fomenting a clash of civilizations.”

I won’t run you through France’s recent history with Islamic terrorism or its segregation of Muslim citizens again. I did that here and here. Suffice to say that Macron’s American critics, who until recently had a president who really did crack down on Muslims, flirted with authoritarianism and tried to foment a clash of civilizations, may be coming at this from the wrong angle.

Macron is the most liberal president of France since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. He has eased regulations on small and medium-sized businesses, expanding public health plans to include free dental services, eyeglasses and hearing aids, liberalized labor law and intercity transport, cut greenhouse gas emissions and raised welfare spending.

Now he’s “drifting into authoritarianism” because he wants to surveil those suspected of plotting against the state, regulate homeschooling and prohibit polygamy? Give me a break.