Sarkozy and the fifth republic

Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo. Professor. IE

4 November 2010

The mark left by Charles de Gaulle on French institutions of the Fifth Republic and on the role of president is losing its significance with Nicolás Sarkozy. Such a change is not without risk.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Fifth French Republic was as important for the French as the transition to parliamentary monarchy was for the Spanish. France laid the first building bricks for modern Europe in 1789, but it subsequently took her a long time to find stability within the continent she had helped to shape. Nineteenth century France was almost as turbulent as that of Spain, as royal, imperial and republican regimes failed one after the other, unable to secure the solid support of a definite majority of French society.

Moreover, France’s position in a constantly shifting Europe was precarious until 1945, as evidenced by three German invasions in less than a century. But not even the end of World War II brought stability to the French political arena, because the Algerian crisis prevented France from consolidating an otherwise successful Fourth Republic.

The historic role of providing France with internal strength and international security was reserved for Charles de Gaulle. His call to the French on June 18, 1940 to rebel against defeat and collaboration enabled France to take its place among the conquerors at the end of the war and gain its place on the global stage as a permanent member of UN Security. Moreover in 1958 De Gaulle gave France the most successful political system in its post-absolute-monarchy history, namely the Fifth Republic. The combination of "Gaullist war" and "institutional Gaullism" rendered the general the founder of modern France, a title no other Western politician of the twentieth century can claim. The recent commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the famous June 1940 appel has led to a mass reflection in France of what is left of the Gaullists. It is worth picking up the thread of this story by focusing the analysis on the direction the role played by President Sarkozy in the Fifth Republic is currently taking.

From an institutional perspective, one of the key features of the Fifth French Republic is the subordination of the parliament and the supremacy of the executive, with a very strong commitment to the figure of the president of the republic. This level of emphasis on the president is similar only in Latin American democracies. Furthermore, the Gaullist tradition expects the president to exhibit at least the following characteristics: an elegant command of language, a sense of history, and the ability to conduct himself with solemnity and authority before the French people when circumstances warrant it. It was, of course, De Gaulle himself who set the pattern, but it is surprising the extent to which his successors have adhered to it. Georges Pompidou was a teacher of literature and author of an admirable anthology of French poetry, Valéry Giscard d´Estaing, now a member of the French Academy, has always spoken with a precision that made the delivery of his speeches bear a distinct resemblance to a geometric theorem. However, perhaps the most prolific and sincere literary vocation was that of François Mitterrand, who managed to completely reconcile the French left with Gaullist institutions, which Mitterrand himself had initially described as a "permanent coup d’état ".

In this respect, Jacques Chirac is a figure in transition. Despite his long political career - twice prime minister, twice president of the republic - his inexhaustible energy, and his attempts to live up to De Gaulle’s legacy, he never achieved it in full. Moreover, Chirac was the last president the Fifth Republic to personally meet and discuss with the General. The politicians who met De Gaulle shared a complicity that transcended party politics, as evidenced by an anecdote from the inauguration of Chirac as president of the republic. On that day in May 1995, Mitterrand, his predecessor, took him to the presidential office in the Elysee palace. "You’ve changed the decor," said a surprised Chirac, who knew the place well. Mitterrand, always fond of historical and literary details smiled and said: "I put everything just as it was when De Gaulle left in 1969." It is clear that the shadow of the General was present during that particular transfer of power.

So where does Nicolas Sarkozy fit into this story? On an institutional level, his irrepressible activity has taken Gaullism to new levels. Gaullism certainly gave a lot of power to the president, but it also protected his dignity. Sarkozy has ticked all the boxes, eclipsing his Prime Minister Francois Fillon in a way that is unprecedented in the Fifth Republic. It should be noted, however, that Fillon, who is intelligent and discreet, could be described as the astronomer who predicted his own eclipse. Shortly before the election of Sarkozy, Fillon published a book based on the constitutional reform of 2000, which reduced the presidential term from seven to five years, thus dramatically reducing the risk of a president having to vie with a hostile parliamentary majority. In this new situation, Fillon upheld that the president should abandon all pretence of being an above-the-party arbiter and become a political player that is actively engaged and responsible for the execution of a program. Thus, the prime minister would be reduced to being merely the president’s key assistant. And that is exactly what happened. But the risks of this doctrine are increasingly clear, as the Romanian gypsies crisis has just proved. The president cannot be constantly in the trenches without occasionally ending up in a bad way. De Gaulle also challenged the European Community, but with the majestic disdain of the "empty chair policy", not with over-the-fence style insults.

Furthermore, Sarkozy has not cultivated the serious and reserved image of his predecessors in neither his private nor his political life. Unlike most of them, he didn’t go to a Grande Ecole and therefore lacks the reverential fear of all things public, and the gravitas that comes from having studied at one. It seems that Sarkozy based his approach on the premise that French civil society was never as indelibly stamped by De Gaulle as state institutions, and is now extremely far removed from the strict Gaullist parameters. Accordingly it no longer makes sense that the president of the republic should act like the high priest of a state religion whose rites impress fewer and fewer citizens.

One might conclude that with Sarkozy the Fifth Republic is slipping towards populism. The president´s gamble is quite a risk, as evidenced by the low levels of popularity according to recent polls. Voters do not always like it when their chosen leaders throw tradition to the wind, particularly if said tradition was established by a respected founding father. But his fate is not yet quite sealed. We will have to wait until the next presidential elections in 2012 to see if this marked turnaround of France’s political regime can hold.

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