"Ce que je veux changer tient à une pratique qui compte aux yeux des citoyens et qui s'appelle le respect, la considération, la démocratie, le sens de l'Etat", a attaqué François Hollande, monté à la tribune après un long bain de foule à travers la salle, avant de fustiger "le règne de l'omniprésidence, le régime d'un seul. (...) L'omnipotence conduit à l'impuissance. Cette impuissance elle-même engendre l'irresponsabilité, où ce qui est dit n'est pas fait et où ce qui est fait n 'est pas dit."This is quite interesting to me, because it fits well with an argument I am developing for a series of lectures on the upcoming elections. In a nutshell, what I will argue is that Sarkozy's failure cannot be explained entirely in terms of economic management (which in comparative terms hasn't been that bad), character, or the bad luck of incumbency in the midst of an economic crisis. All these things matter of course, but there is also a deeper reason for his extremely low approval ratings. He attempted to transform the presidency from an institution of the general interest to an instrument of partisan politics, inimical to the spirit of the Fifth Republic.
"Le prochain président sera indépendant", a promis François Hollande, et "d'abord de son propre parti. Socialiste, je suis. Socialiste, je resterai. Mais [le président] n'est plus le chef d'un parti, il est le chef de l'Etat", a-t-il poursuivi. Indépendance à l'égard des formations politiques, mais aussi "des puissances de l'argent", a-t-il assuré : "recevoir les patrons du CAC 40 autant que nécessaire, être invité par eux le moins possible".
This effort proved to be a double-edged sword. At first it worked in his favor, in part because Fifth Republican institutions always contained a large element of fantasy: previous presidents were of course engaged politicians, not neutral umpires operating in some mystical empyrean of the general interest. But they took pains to camouflage their commitments, to heighten the convenient fiction of an independent government headed by a political prime minister. People had grown tired of this fantasy and wanted a presidency that embodied both political realism and energetic vigor. Sarkozy supplied both, and began his term with a 67% approval rating.
But omnipresence quickly diminished him, and a longing for a more aloof and "impartial" president became evident even before the economic crisis began to bite. The more redistributive aspects seemed not just partisan but punitive. By the time he realized this and tried to restore some of the lost dignity of the office, it was too late, and now, in desperation, he is pushing partisanship to an extreme, abandoning all pretense of above-the-fray stature. So I think Hollande is right to sense an opening here, although there is a danger that by evoking the ghosts of de Gaulle and Mitterrand--the only two presidents with the personal dimension to fill the monarchical conception of the presidential role--he will remind voters that his career gives him no such claim.
Incidentally, I will be developing this thesis at greater length in various places over the next few months: at Harvard's Center for European Studies on March 20; at UNLV on April 17; at UWisc in Madison on April 25; and at Stanford sometime in May. Readers in any of those areas are invited to attend. Details will follow as the dates approach.