The French “Crisis of Authority” Is A Crisis Of The Authorities

In France, you lose count of how many times you’ve heard about the “crisis of authority”. It has become a central preoccupation, amongst and spread by, a wide range of influential people. First of all, politicians themselves claim it. To name famous one, the current Prime Minister Manuel Valls explicitly talked about a “crisis of authority”[1] in an interview in 2013. He then published a tribune about it in November 2015 on the official government website[2]. In 2014, the right-wing’s deputy Laurent Wauquiez talked about a “crisis of the republican authority”[3] during an interview too. As far as intellectuals are concerned, the interview given by the member of the French Academy and Stanford professor Michel Serres in 2012[4], the books by the philosophers Alain Renaut in 2004[5] and Jean-Claude Monod in 2012[6], the choice of the theme of the “social weeks of France”[7] in 2009[8] all convey the “crisis of authority”. Further in the field of social sciences, the former chief of the IFOP (Institut français d’opinion publique, international pooling and market research firm based in Paris), Jean-Marc Lech, points out the “lack of respect” felt by the French towards authority in 2009[9]. The high administration seems concerned by this “crisis” too: at the recruitment of the future high-level civil servants, most of the ENA’s candidates in 2015 were asked during their personality interview about their perceptions of the current state authority. The crisis of authority touches on the academy too. The social sciences university SciencesPo offered all 2014-15 Masters students a lecture on authority and its problematic relationship to democracy[10]. More broadly, the media echoes these concerns too.

Hence, it is clear that something seems to be wrong in the relationship between political authority’s holders and their people: François Hollande’s support currently lies at 10% in French polls, abstention and extremist votes are rising, from this dissatisfaction, a will for new forms of action and democratic participation is born. Thus, the “crisis of authority” questions both our political organization and our relationship to political authority’s holders. What is the narrative of this crisis of authority about? What does it reveal about those who tell it?

What is authority?

Firstly, we often confuse authority with other concepts such as violence or authoritarianism. Violence is defined as the force exerted to submit, forcing someone into something against their will. Authoritarianism is a lonely, absolute and arbitrary power. In contrast, authority is a people-legitimated tool to build up a safe group structure. Etymologically, authority derives from auctoritas in Latin, which both means an author’s act and an augmentation.

An authority’s act is an author’s act in the sense that the act is characterized with its authenticity. The authority’s holder takes an action that in some way changes society; an authority’s act in not maintaining or repeating what has been done before. The decisions taken by authority’s holders are not cut from the past or the fundaments of the society. In that sense, because the authority’s acts are a creative continuation of the community’s past, they are an augmentation. To be legitimated and efficient, the acts taken by an authority’s holder have to depart from the past experiences and from the essential values of the community. In other words, authority’s acts are part of the tapestry of society past and future, and hence there is a need for continuity too. For that, authority’s holders have to develop a vision, a big picture of what they want their society to become from what it essentially is before. Authority enables a society to move forward without losing ground.

Narrowing our examples to a democratic political organisation, the main authority holders in France are the President, the Prime Minister and their government. Theoretically, they have been elected and legitimated to endorse authority thanks to their enough knowledge of their society’s history, values and trends. Indeed, this knowledge makes them able to take authority’s decisions (author’s act and augmentation). These decisions should help society evolve in a way that is adequate to its foundations and particularities.

Authority’s holders are legitimated by two means. On the one hand, they are legitimated by their knowledge of society. On the other hand, their selection process legitimates them. It is essential that the society recognizes the acts of authority’s holders as valuable and valid. The overall vision and coherence in which authority’s acts are embedded lead to the credit of authority’s holders. The selection process in democracies includes each citizen equally. Indirectly, citizens take part to their society’s evolution. In that sense, democracy conveys power to its people (demos–kratos, “the power to the people”). However, the people aren’t exercising their power into action. Authority’s holders take decisions over the concrete actions to implement the power of the people. Authority and democracy are compatible. Even more, authority is helping democracies to exist.

If the concept of authority helps the democratic representation of the people, where does the narrative of “crisis of authority” come from? Is this a crisis of adequate representation? Is this not a crisis of the concept of authority, but instead a crisis of the authorities? This narrative was made possible by the construction of a contradiction between authority’s holders’ elections and the scope of action taken by authority’s holders. The meaning of democratic elections can be twisted in such a way that one can suspect the distortion of the equality that should be conveyed by democracy. This distortion works even better as the emphasis on equality in our understanding of democracy often seems wider as what democratic equality originally encompassed (equal vote in particular and in general equal treatment by the law). It currently seems that democracy would be the synonym of not only of an equal status in front of the law in general, and the collective choice in particular, but more broadly the synonym of the equal power that every one ought to have to individually be able to shape one’s ow life – equal with authority’s holders who enforce acts that can deeply influence our personal lives. Because authority’s holders have the ability to act on behalf of the entire group, they would enjoy a form of domination over the collective, public environment that deprives the other citizens from part of their self-determination, thus restricting their freedom.

But this contradiction between equality and the scope of actions of authority’s holders is more a perception than the deduction of political facts. Firstly, embodying authority is simply a function; it is not a special status that would put authority’s holders above other citizens. Every citizen, including authority’s holders, is equal in front of the law. Whether they endorse authority or not, all citizens share the same public sphere and rules. This is precisely the equality foreseen by democracy. To concretely provide it, the equal status, the equal chance to unfold as individual, to its citizens, democracy provides and shapes tools such as taxation, school, and freedom of speech for example. However, these tools are not created by each individual himself, but provided by authority’s holders because their decisions are supposed to be the most adequate to ensure an overall, safe frame of life. The individual’s will is not the higher will to determine one’s whole life. Authority’s acts are part of the shaping of our environment to protect us against our basic instincts, because authority’s holders are supposed to have deep knowledge about their people and at the same time enough distance to take decisions that will ensure equality, liberty and dignity to all. This justifies the function of authority’s holders.

Passivity of politicians towards our political and social malaise

Democracy and authority are compatible. Even more, they reinforce each other. Authority’s holders for their own sakes may use the narrative of a crisis of authority and its possible resentments. Affirming the natural essence of the “crisis of authority” legitimizes the current passive behaviour of politicians towards the malaise of our political life and organisation. Playing with a contradiction between authority and democracy and playing with the negative emotions stirs up in citizens, democratic authority’s holders can easily hide the substantial causes of the problem. Thus, they can be held as legitimate when they suggest that the only crisis’ exit possible is to build up a new structure.

As an example, Arnaud de Montebourg, former Minister under François Hollande, has suggested the writing of a new Constitution to solve French democracy (‘The Plan Of A Sixth Republic In France’), and the call for more ‘participative democracy’ is gaining momentum. From another perspective, citizens try to re-think their capacity of action through physical occupation of to-be-built infrastructures (like in Sivens, Roybon, Notre-Dame-des-Landes, right now in Nantes, for example) or by trying to organize reflections committees on the Place de la République in Paris (movement NuitDebout). This widespread understanding of authority nurtures the disconnection between governing and governed people. The real root of the “crisis of authority” resides on how authority’s holders handle it.

We can concede to authority’s holders that the rapidly changing international environment affects their decisions in an unpredictable way. An authority’s act should be based with the roots, with the foundations of a society. Currently, it seems that it is harder to understand the society’s underlying dynamics that lead it: the motion doesn’t seem to come from within the society – its heritage, its values, and its evolution – but rather from outside the national sphere (international organisations, the EU, the finance world and others) or from the civil society. It looks like the source of power and the possibility to implement it are more and more diffused and dissolved. The impression left by the main decisions lately taken in France (for instance, the COP 21 in Paris, gay marriage, the labour law reform) answers certain preoccupations. But they are not enrolled in a wider political sense, or vision.

The need for political vision

Although the power sphere is less and less clear for authority’s holders, it is still possible, at the national level (because the main political organisation remains national states), to develop a vision, to produce a definition of society that would give a feeling of belonging and anchorage to people in the society they are living in. It is sad to notice that lots of politicians do not seem to grasp the social infrastructure –meaning the organization of society, its main conflicts and values of a society. Concretely, the answer to the two terrorist attacks Paris witnessed last year could have been different to the state of emergency and the strengthening of police forces. Above all, the French President could have publicly given a clear definition of freedom of expression, of laicity[11] and of citizenship. It was a great opportunity to redefine the core values and the scope of the public common sphere of life. A clarification would give sense to the French society; it would pacify the social malaise and strengthen citizens towards one another. Furthermore, while being intermingled in conflicts with the Middle East, one of the France’s leading university in political sciences, SciencesPo, chose in 2010 to close its research program specialized on Islam. It is regrettable that a huge potential of understanding Islamic radicalisation has closed. Overall, other facets of society could be charged and communicated with more sense, such as the EU integration and the national fiscal policy. The EU might not only be a liberal machine that pushes national states to financial cuts, but also an organisation that allows peaceful cooperation and exchanges. Fiscal policy, in defining the allocation of money, can bear the implementation of a vision of equality and liberty. It is possible for authority’s holders to re-legitimate their position by gaining a sense and a direction for their society. It probably begins with work inside the political parties. This might not only be true for France, but for other European countries as well.

Bérengère is an associate of Social Science Works. She got her BA and MA in Public Affairs at the Sciences Po in Paris and Nancy, and is currently studying at Humboldt University. She combines this with being a parliamentary assistant at the Bundestag in Berlin.

* Many thanks to especially Nils Wadt for his valuable remarks and suggestions.






[5] Alain Renaut, La Fin de l’autorité, ed. Flammarion, 2004 ;

[6] Jean-Claude Monod, Qu’est-ce qu’un chef en démocratie. Politiques du charisme, ed. Seuil, coll. « L’ordre philosophique », 2012

[7] The Social Weeks of France is an social observatory and reflexion committee created in 1904, and that inspired numerous social reforms in France.




[11] Laïcité: principle implemented since 1905 in France according to which religious representants are strictly separated from the state’s representation.


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