The French Presidency is a More Powerful Role than in the Anglo World

The French Presidency is a More Powerful Role than in the Anglo World, by Robert Tombs.

The 5th Republic [established by established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958] is a quasi-Bonapartist system. Bonapartism has been summed up as ‘active authority and passive democracy’, in which the voters acclaimed a charismatic national leader.

Charles de Gaulle, war time leader of the Free French, founder of the French 5th Republic, and President 1958 – 69.

After the catastrophic defeat of Napoleon III in 1870, a Republic was created to prevent such ‘Caesarism’ by giving predominance to parliament. But French conservatives continued to nurse visions of ‘strong’ government under a charismatic royal or military leader, to end what they saw (sometimes rightly) as the corruption, factionalism and instability of parliamentary government. T

The great French historian Raoul Girardet identified two political yearnings deeply embedded in French political imagination: for unity, and for a providential saviour. The disaster of 1940 was duly blamed on disunity, and for a time Marshal Pétain assumed the role of saviour. The Algerian crisis of 1958-62 seemed to repeat the lesson, and this time the saviour was the far worthier figure of General de Gaulle. He had long wanted to create a more authoritative system of government with a powerful national leader ‘above party’: and now he did.

The 5th Republic created what the draughtsman of its constitution called a ‘republican monarchy’. Its powers far exceed those of a British prime minister or an American president, and, crucially, without their checks and balances. The accountability of the executive to parliament is severely restricted. The president is literally irresponsible: there is no mechanism for removing him. He – they have all been men – controls government business and has vast personal powers of appointment. He can dismiss the government, dissolve parliament and call referendums. In practice, his role goes beyond even that laid down in the constitution, for example he effectively controls foreign and defence policy. National political life revolves round the presidency, and the rest of the system has withered.

But in practice it has led to indecision and weak government:

So why the paralysis? In a nutshell, because the huge powers of the president rarely produce effective action. The burden has proved beyond any normal politician, even beyond de Gaulle, who left office ignominiously. The president must not merely lead a party and government. He must also embody national unity, determine what de Gaulle called ‘the destiny’ of France, and symbolise the dignity of the nation both to itself and to the world (here Sarkozy and Hollande fell sadly short). As soon as he is elected, he becomes the principal target of opposition and discontent, obsessed with his ratings and prospects for re-election. The very eminence of the presidency means isolation within the political bubble of the Elysée, and there has long been a pattern of erratic policy decisions being followed by U-turns in the face of popular uproar. It is too much to expect a national saviour to appear every five years. …

Macron or Le Pen?

Both candidates are the positive choice of less than a quarter of voters. They inspire among the other three-quarters mistrust and scepticism in the case of Macron, and fear and loathing in the case of Le Pen. If a President Le Pen tried to use the vast presidential prerogative to force through her programme (cracking down on minorities, deporting undesirables, or triggering a Frexit) she would meet resistance not only in parliament but, more seriously, in the streets.

hat-tip Stephen Neil