Whether anyone likes to admit it or not, Americans learned a great deal about building a liberal democratic republic from their French counterparts. Many of the influential founding fathers, especially Mr. Jefferson, had keen eyes on the French revolution, and the political and philosophical discourse that went into it. The western conception of self-actualizing man being granted certain rights by birth was first brought to fruition in the French republic, and then in the US on the heels of the French aided war against the British.
The government in the new USA ultimately took a considerably different form than the French one, first and foremost because it became a federal republic wherein state sovereignty was respected. Then, after the failure of the Articles of Confederation to efficiently govern these sovereign states, increasing power was granted to the federal government, and, at the same time, to the chief executive. However, the president’s power was still meant to be aggressively checked by the other branches of the federal government and by the individual states. Nonetheless, this power would be continually abused, beginning with Jefferson’s illegal “purchase” of Louisiana and continuing with the imperial destiny of succeeding presidents through to the modern day. Currently, the president has become so powerful that congresses refuses to ever stop a president’s war, or flex its power of the purse to shut down an illegal war, or to use its power to check the chief executive via impeachment. The president has virtually become an elected monarch.
Unfortunately, the French, too, have adopted the American idea of the chief executive. The current form of the presidency is General Charles de Gaulle’s invention: an extraordinarily strong decision maker with a virtual monopoly of power in the realm of foreign policy. DeGaulle hoped that a strong president would help cure the inherent instabilities of the parliamentary system. As Europe looked toward the future of rebuilding and economic prosperity, France would be pressed with the duty of leading it. With such high demands in place, trivial bickering between factions would only injure European progress. There needed to be an all-powerful sovereign in place to carry the weight of the world.
Fortunately enough, DeGaulle had a bit of an anti-Anglophone streak to him. He felt that the EU should not allow Britain into its club of nations, because the new European powers should serve as a balance to the prevailing Anglophone superpowers. He was fearful that the U.K. would use the power of membership status to push Europe in a more Atlantacist direction, and that the EU would thus become a puppet of the American empire. Furthermore, DeGaulle was opposed to the Anglophone economic model, favoring a gentler capitalist mode of production over the savage variety found in the US and the U.K. The idea was that Europe would come to fruition on the heels of a social model which emphasized caring for the most vulnerable portions of its population, rather than one where social good was entirely left to the whims of the market. This isn’t to say that capitalism itself was critiqued: just its precise form. Of course, the U.K. did eventually join the EU, though they had to wait for DeGaulle’s death in order for it to happen. Thirty years later, their Labour PM allows himself to be pranced into war by an increasingly totalitarian US, and Europe becomes divided, as the Gaullist president Jacques Chirac decidedly opposes French involvement in the imperial mal-adventure.
Four years later, Chirac is headed for retirement, having been hung out to dry by successive crises: first massive protest to the proposed EU constitution, then widespread violence in France’s poor and immigrant communities, and then protest to the new labor contract for French youth (the Contrat Premiere Embauche (CPE)). In other words, his domestic policies weren’t in line with France’s burgeoning social movements.
The lesson should be that France needs a leader more to the left: ready and willing to stand up against the liberalizing direction of Europe. Unfortunately, what they are getting from the mainstream parties in the April 22 elections is absolutely despicable. In to replace Chirac for the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) candidacy is his protégé turned rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Known by those who dislike him as “Sarko,” he is a truly dangerous thug of a political leader. As president, he will be worse for France than Bush has been for the United States. His approach is not the kinder, gentler Capitalism of Gaullist leaders. Instead, he takes a more cowboy approach: favoring reducing barriers to free trade and the open market. He has also slung his support at Bush’s war in Iraq and the general direction of American foreign policy in the Middle East. This serves well to reflect his domestic policy, which is centered on containing immigration. He doesn’t quite take the hard-line anti-immigrant stance of nationalist leader Jean-Marie LePen, but his name is just as potent when it comes to dividing the nation along lines of class, ethnicity and race. When civil disorder began to take hold in the Parisian banlieue one and a half years ago, Sarko’s public comments served to further feed the fires, as he recommended that the police head in with fire hoses to cleanse the streets of the racaille (scum).
Beyond this, Sarko has used his role within the Interior Ministry to take a stab at independent journalistic inquiry. As readership of leftwing publications like Liberation and the Communist L’Humanite plummet, the conservative government of the last five years has consistently bullied anyone in the mainstream media caught engaging in tough, critical journalism. For example, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepen launched aggressive legal action at journalist Denis Robert and the editor of Nouvel Observateur for their work in breaking news on the Clearstream affair, wherein French political leaders (Sarko included) were implicated in the enormous money laundering scandal managed by the clearing division of Deutsche Börse. Meanwhile, Sarko launched an attack on the junk magazine Paris Match, after an August 25, 2005 issue wherein his wife, Cecelia, was pictured alongside her fling of the moment, Richard Attias. Sarko had his private life exposed to the tune of 900,000 copies sold throughout France. He was so irate that he asked his friend Arnaud Lagardère, part of the ownership team at Paris Match, to sack the editor-in-chief, Alain Genester. The favor was eventually served, and the point was made clear: even junk journalism can’t have its freedom in Sarko’s France.
What is the center-left’s response to the nightmarish prospect of a Sarko presidency? Her name is Segolene Royal: candidate of the Parti Socialiste (PS). She is one of those frivolous sort of center-left politicians: willing to abandon principle in a heartbeat so as to please the establishment. In this way, she is France’s answer to Barack Obama. She is younger, energetic, and wrongly perceived as being outside of the political mainstream. What’s more, she is a woman! That should be progress enough, right!?
She does little to please the traditionally strong left end of the spectrum in France. This is surprising given that the Socialists failed to earn the right to run in the second round of elections five years ago: having been out-run by the right-wing Nationalist Jean-Marie LePen for the second spot after Jacques Chirac. Instead of attempting to win votes away from further left parties, Royal is playing right into Sarko’s hands, by making it increasingly difficult for French voters to differentiate her from him. When she’s not babbling on about the importance of family values and curbing violence on television and in video games, she is refusing to take a firm anti-liberal stance on social issues. In her appearance this week on the TV station TF1, she backed away from firm promises on social issues such as re-valuing small pensions or free health care for youth, and instead promised to balance the need for job security with the need of competitive enterprise. Her pampering to the center right continued with this following gem of a quote, in response to a question of what should be done about people who stay on unemployment too long: “I want a society of responsibility, not one of assistance. No new rights, without new duty!” Instead of confronting the question with thoughtful rhetoric on how to provide assistance while maintaining a strong economy, she actually seems to say that she prefers not to provide the assistance at all!! Is one to assume then that France is moving in the direction of the American economy, wherein one’s duty is working 50, 60 hours a week, and one’s rights in the workplace are basically non-existent!?
The next two biggest candidates are Jean-Marie LePen, the fascist who shocked the world with his second round bid five years ago, and Francois Bayrou, who represents the center-right UDF (Union for French Democracy). LePen will see votes stolen away from Sarko this time around, given the latter’s hardline stance on immigration. Bayrou, meanwhile, is consistently running just behind Sarko and Royal, though a recent poll shows that he would paradoxically win in a second round runoff against either of them. He is essentially a prettier version of Sarko, preaching the importance of bridging the gap between the left and right, going so far as to saying he would consider appointing a Socialist Prime Minister. His claim is that left-right politics is obsolete: part of that dirty history of the 20th century. Essentially, he feels that the nation should be voting for personalities rather than political ideals. Being from the US, this sounds all too uncomfortably familiar.
This is the crisis of presidentialism. Minority parties and ideologies are discouraged from participating, and very unlikely to win. The five or so left contenders will divide the anti-liberal vote amongst them and most likely not see a birth in the second round. In the French parliament they can gain seats and leverage for power, as the system of proportional representation encourages them to play along. But in the presidential race, they become an after thought.
This wasn’t so bad during the third and fourth Republics, wherein the president was essentially a ceremonial entity with little real, political power. However, since DeGaulle has taken on the American form of an all-powerful president, the democracy has been injured. Such is overwhelmingly clear this time around, where traditional French themes of diplomacy over war and social protections over wild capitalism have been axed from the mainstream debate.
I know it’s a cliché, but it’s a good one: these presidential races are a lot like horse races. In the US, the major problem with the November charade is the lame field. One ultra capitalist squares off against another, fighting over family values and the right to abort fetuses. Then the race descends into a third grade geography lesson, with the nation divided into red and blue, liberal and conservative, prissy and red neck, dangerous and downright stupid.
And down the stretch they come. Nag one is hit with a scandal, nag 2’s whip falls from the media jockey’s hands, the crowd is nervous because their purse springs are so adamantly attached. The only winners are the geniuses who own the track: skimming off the top of everyone’s bets. Then there are those who accept their fate, hedge their bets, and feel like relative winners no matter who wins. Throw a little cash at both of the beasts, and they’ll keep you in mind down the line.
Then the aftermath: the dust settles and we have a new champion. The mint juleps run dry, the fans go back to their trivial lives and the grand institution continues. No one complains because they’ve never been told that complaining was an option.
Maybe it would help if we would teach a little Common Sense in school: lace the little cartons of milk with Thomas Paine and trash the kids’ TV’s.
Other Articles by Matt Reichel
July Lesson for the Left