France’s search for political normality

Almost by definition, elections are decisive events. They end, or are intended to end, months of societal uncertainty; they reassuringly reaffirm the democratic process by offering voters a menu of choice; they put lame-duck governments or leaders out of their (and their country’s) misery; and they reinvigorate somebody’s legislative agenda in order to jump-start policy after endless promises from all sides. They are happenings in order to get things to happen in a democracy. French elections in particular are supposed to produce stable governments and strong leaders. This was the express intent of the Fifth Republic constitution, which provided for a presidential system carved out in Charles de Gaulle’s image in place of the weak parliamentarism of the Third and Fourth republics (1871-1940 and 1944-1958). And for the most part, French elections since then have produced viable governments on both sides of the political spectrum; the Gaullist system long outlasted its namesake and the crises (notably Algeria) that hastened his return to active politics in 1958. In 44 years, France has had just five incumbents, three of whom were re-elected. While numerically overwhelming, Jacques Chirac’s re-election on Sunday with 82 percent of the vote – after gaining less than 20 percent in the first round two weeks earlier – was, however, far from another mandate in the same mold. To get some idea of the scale, even de Gaulle at the height of his power was re-elected in 1965 (against one Francois Mitterrand, then seemingly a perennial has-been) with 56 percent. Chirac’s triumph was both abnormally large, representing a coalition of convenience against a far more dire alternative, and deceptively solid, having the approximate lasting power of a souffle. Chirac knows it, which is why he is already working overtime to secure the parliamentary majority he seeks next month. But unlike in past elections, there is little guarantee that he will achieve it, or keep it together if he does. Decisive, not conclusive More generally, this election cycle fueled many fears that the Fifth Republic system may be crumbling from within, or spawning a malignancy in the form of the National Front that will prove catching elsewhere. The events of spring 1968, to which the current era is sometimes compared, gave rise to similar, but ultimately misplaced, fears. This time, inadequately addressed social issues like immigration and unemployment, and fears over France’s role in a world led by the USA and a Europe increasingly dominated by Germany, produced a major political anomaly. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s second-place finish in the first presidential round left many French people profoundly embarrassed about what had transpired and left many outsiders worried about the spillover effect in other countries facing similar concerns. Equally astonishing, if less remarked upon, was the double-digit success of left-wing candidates which doomed the presidential aspirations of the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. Chirac’s huge victory was far from meaningless, but it was certainly anti-climactic after the freakish first-round results in which 16 candidates maximized the latent «mischief factor» and delivered him a runoff opponent from the nationalist fringe. The second round was legitimate but hardly representative, and the results decisive but hardly conclusive in any broader sense. It eliminated all doubt that the neofascist fringe was poised to take power in a crucial European country and reconfirmed democratic values, but little else. It is false comfort that an incumbent president, dogged by allegations of scandal and opportunism, was forced to advocate defense of democracy as his main platform – as if basic democratic values were really in any doubt in the Europe of 2002 – or that over four fifths of French voters rejected the verbal thuggery of his opponent. But it left many questions open concerning what direction France may be heading in, including the very real social concerns that Le Pen tapped (or played on) into to such powerful effect in the first round. Because what happens in France matters for the rest of Europe, and vice versa – something useful to remember on a day like today, May 9, Europe Day, which aims to encourage Europe-wide discussion on Europe-wide issues. If nothing else, Le Pen (rather than Chirac) has already banged issues like immigration on the table. Significantly, this was the first election under France’s revamped electoral system, with its truncated presidential term (Chirac was elected for seven years in 1995, but only for five this time around) and coterminous presidential and parliamentary cycles. This shift is part of an ongoing, if slow and uncertain, structural change in the French political system in which the presidency itself is being gradually downgraded in favor of Parliament. A recent poll showed that 59 percent of French voters believe Parliament, more than the presidency, will determine the direction of France’s future, a result unthinkable a decade ago. This development toward a more normal European pattern is obscured, but not interrupted, by the Chirac landslide. France may be the trend-receiver, rather than the revolutionary trend-setter, this time around. The shift toward parliamentary-presidential dualism began in earnest in 1986, when Francois Mitterrand was dealt an indirect vote of no confidence and had a right-wing parliamentary majority forced on him by the voters. After two subsequent terms of uneasy, left-right cohabitation, the French are rather inured to the idea, even if it has increasingly produced uncertain, double-headed government and muddled policy, especially in the Chirac-Jospin years just passed. And anything could happen in next month’s parliamentary elections, although with the left in disarray and without a viable national leader, Chirac may well be able to hold together a loose, right-wing coalition long enough to deliver him the victory he seeks. Whether he could convert that into a workable program is another question altogether; it may be that the Chirac presidency could end up buttressing a conservative National Assembly, rather than vice versa. The Greek influence Many observers have wondered in print whether Greece could catch some sort of «French disease» in the form of Le Pen clones, or else, in Greece’s case, whether Prime Minister Costas Simitis might suffer the same fate as Jospin, to whom he is often compared, and be forced to resign his premiership in case PASOK, as expected, does badly at next October’s municipal elections. That is interesting speculation, but narrowly confined. And influences can work both ways. France’s ongoing changes are structural and somewhat similar to those instituted in Greece in the 1980s. The Greek system, following the reinstitution of democracy in 1974, was modeled on the French one, and boasted a strong presidency as a sort of benevolent, post-dictatorship guiding force for the country. This system seemed to work well enough and provided a seeming floor of stability beneath the unpredictable premiership of Andreas Papandreou. This all changed in 1985, when PASOK pulled its support from Karamanlis and opted for Christos Sartzetakis in a pared-down presidency reduced to figurehead status. The PASOK maneuver was widely decried as tinkering with a successful formula and for being politically motivated, but it did at least have the virtue of decisiveness. Now, in turn, the French may be taking a page from the Greek experience, but evolving into it slowly. France is undergoing a transition away from a dominant presidency, while also justifiably tiring of cohabitation, with two separate figures competing for political primacy and angling for the centrist vote while avoiding the hard issues. This led to the eruption on the political fringes in a country that once again demonstrated its lively political culture and tradition. What happened over the past few weeks, ironically, was partly a product of the system that was set up to reduce the power of the fringe. In this sense, the political elite that long pretended to know what is best for the voters have had those same voters rise up and deliver them a resounding rejoinder. And that, within limits of course, can be a benign and even healthy as well as unsettling thing for a democracy. The Council of Europe said in a report last week that Turkey’s forcible removal of migrants was «inexcusable» and called for a halt in expelling those who risked ill treatment back home.