Paris, April 19, 2007 – The French presidential election promises, or perhaps one would say threatens, important change in France’s political practice and institutions. (The first round of the vote takes [has taken] place on Sunday April 22 -- after this column was written -- with the second and decisive round in two weeks.)
Nicolas Sarkozy, the apparent leader in the run-up to the vote, says he would keep the present constitution of the Fifth Republic but in practice make it closer to the American system by taking a more dynamic and direct presidential role -- consistent with his demonstrated activism. His prime minister seems likely to be more a chief of staff than of a government, as called for in the constitution.
This is what worries people. The Fifth Republic’s constitution invests great power in the president, as head of state (all but total power in foreign and military affairs), but the prime minister is expected to be a figure of independent authority who sets his own legislative program in national matters and chooses his own cabinet.
He serves at the pleasure of the president, but the president traditionally has kept a distance between himself and the government, which actually is to his advantage (or hers, as it might soon be) because it provides insulation and space for maneuver when the government is in trouble. The president can dismiss a cabinet in difficulties and name a new prime minister to launch the government onto a different course.
This is what the Socialist François Mitterrand, elected in 1981, did when the “break with capitalism” he rashly had promised the voters created inflation, economic slowdown, and unemployment. Mitterrand, with no great embarrassment to himself, was able to reverse national economic and social policy, with his prime minister, Pierre Mauroy, taking the blame.
Another singularity of the Fifth Republic constitution, the two-year discrepancy between presidential (7 years) and parliamentary (5 years) terms, added to presidential flexibility by sparing him full implication in a change in parliamentary majority. Mitterrand, and Jacques Chirac when he became president, found this highly convenient.
Mitterrand ruled for two terms with the same autocratic remoteness from the daily business of government as had DeGaulle before him, even when – as happened to both him and Jacques Chirac, his successor -- a hostile majority was elected to parliament. Each named prime ministers from the new majority and ruled in “cohabitation” with their political opponents.
Such was not intended in the constitution, which presumed that, as a man of honor, a president who even symbolically had lost his mandate, would either name a non-partisan prime minister and government or resign.
By defying electoral defeats, and staying in office, both Mitterrand and Chirac actually added to the institutional power of the presidency, by demonstrating that the electorate could not turn a president out until the end of his own term.
This was made worse when in the name of reform the presidential term was reduced to five years, coinciding with the parliamentary term, thereby eliminating the opportunity for the public to rebuke the president midway in his presidency. As there is no judicial power in France comparable to that of the American supreme court, the president is, in practice, invulnerable. This, I suppose, is very French, since 1789 the ultimate sanction to power in France has not been institutional but the street.
Sarkozy has said that if he becomes president he will strengthen parliamentary power, and in recent days has spoken of allocating a limited number of seats to proportional representation (which means the deputies would be named by political parties, rather than directly elected). This objectively weakens parliamentary power by promoting conditions requiring deal-making among multiple parties – the thing that gave the Fourth and Third republics their reputations for weakness and instability. The presidency under those earlier constitutions had mainly formal and ceremonial duties.
A so-called “dose” of proportional representation is also proposed by the two other major candidates in this election, François Bayrou and Ségolène Royal. In Sarkozy’s case, the proposal was taken with skepticism, as a bid for support in the run-off presidential vote from followers of the rightist Jean Marie Le Pen; and Sarkozy withdrew it at the last minute. Proportional representation is the only way small parties with support distributed across many constituencies can actually get deputies in parliament.
The promise is more likely to be kept by the centrist François Bayrou or Socialist Ségolène Royal. Bayrou needs proportional representation because he has no mass party behind him, and should he become president would have difficulty forming a disciplined government. Governing from the center means a constant search for compromise and provisional coalitions. This is why, during the campaign, Bayrou was attacked as taking the French back to the era of weak French governments. He says, in answer, that in the election for parliament, in June, he will name or endorse candidates in every constituency, creating his own party.
The Fifth Republic has always been criticized for excessive presidential power – as being a kind of elected monarchy, without the checks and balances among judiciary, legislature and president that in principle saves American government from the abuses of power.
In view of the events of the last six years, Americans need diffidence in making what in the past was the proud claim that our system of divided powers “works.” It has failed to save American government from a drift towards unaccountable government and an undermined Bill of Rights. The French at least have their traditional recourse to “the street.”
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