Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Une défaite pour nous, incontestablement." Le désir d'une présidence thaumaturge

The quoted words in the title of this post are Pierre Moscovici's, but nearly every Socialist leader repeated one version or another of the same sentiment throughout the evening. Clearly, the word had gone out: Do not deny that we took a beating, do not try to put a good face on things, do not appear defensive, indicate that "something will be done." Well and good. Given the magnitude of the defeat, and given François Hollande's own words when the UMP suffered a similar defeat in the second year of Sarkozy's presidency, any other response would have been a mistake. But what will the actual response be? Un remaniement is inevitable, everyone agrees, and it could come as soon as tomorrow or as late as the Council of Ministers meeting on Wednesday. And some tax cut will probably be announced. But what diagnosis will Hollande offer? How will he explain to himself, let alone to the country, what has gone so disastrously wrong with his presidency?

It would be tempting, I imagine, to compare the collapse of Hollande's presidency to the collapse of Sarkozy's. If you compare the approval ratings of both men over the first two years of their quinquennats, you find roughly parallel rates of decline. Sarko started a bit higher, between 60 and 70 (as against Hollande's 50-60), and didn't fall quite as low, but his peak-to-trough ratio was about the same as Hollande's.

Of course, Hollande can't do this: he would appear to be evading the issue if he did. But I think it is the right explanation: there's something wrong with the French presidency itself. It raises outsized expectations. Its magisterial position, created expressly for de Gaulle and intended to express his belief that national sovereignty stands above politics and national grandeur trumps squabbles over interests, foments illusions of rapid and total transformation: executive power as a substitute for revolution.

Presidents since Giscard, with the exception of Mitterrand, have been trying to tamp down the dangerous illusion of the omnipotent presidency. Both Sarkozy and Hollande sought to "normalize" the presidency: Sarkozy by attempting to assume direct responsibility for everything, eliminating the shield of the prime minister, and Hollande by declaring a "return to normalcy" and shedding, as it was not difficult for his unprepossessing self to do, any semblance of charisma. But both normalizations failed, because le bon peuple really did long for un roi thaumaturge.

The magisterial presidency really has no place in un état gestionnaire, but un état gestionnaire cannot satisfy the expectations of the French people. That is the dilemma of the Fifth Republic.


gregory brown said...

Art you theorized in the earliest days of this blog that EU, as it has been constructed, has left so little discretion in the areas of monetary and fiscal policy, and this particularly pushes against the political culture of France.

Pscientist said...

Hi Artur, I am avid follower of your blog; thanks for all your extremely interesting analysis. This is my first comment on one of your posts.

There is one thing I don't understand about the generalized interpretation of the results of the local elections. Surely, the PS lost a lot of local power, including cities it was holding since the beginning of last century. Surely, the UMP managed to make an impressive comeback despite the fact that the party is in overt disarray and a highly-fragmented right-wing camp.

But given the high level of unemployment and the existing public discontent that is currently sweeping much of Europe, things could have been much worse. The PS was able to retain Paris, Lille, Nantes, Lyon and Strasbourg, 5 of the 10 largest cities in France. And when you look at the aggregate numbers, the gap between the right and the left is not that large.

What I am trying to say is that in the current European context where ruling parties are systematically and brutally punished, the results are not that bad for the PS. The PSOE lost a considerable number of cities in the 2011 local elections in Spain, including some key big municipalities like Seville and Barcelona. Another example is Portugal, where the ruling PSD lost a lot of support in last year's local elections, including the city of Porto to an independent candidate (they did not even have a chance in Lisbon).

It is an undeniable fact that Hollande and his government are extremely unpopular. The worst thing about being a social-democrat is that you get hit from both sides. But could it be that: a)the media has been portraying this election as a referendum on Hollande and they have bought the story of a massive PS debacle?; and b)certain members of the PS maybe have an interest to make it look worse than it is in order to push for the remaniement?

It might be that I am too relativistic but I still think that if you put the election into an European perspective, things could have been way worse.

George Ross said...

Agree about the presidency. Citizens expect one person to perform miracles that are impossible to perform and then all four tires on his car lose their air. But...this does not account for why presidents cannot produce serious solutions to serious problems. De Gaulle was able to achieve this...some of the time. Mitterrand, to a lesser degree. Chirac, Sarkozy, and Hollande, on the other hand were either/and ruthless windbags who expected people to buy into words and fake changes or do-nothings. The office is meant to be powerful, but incumbents recently turn out to be averse to taking risks. Why? Another discussion is also needed... George

bernard said...

I would ascribe a major part of the problem to the 5 year presidency and, worse, to the fact that it corresponds to the parliamentary term. I was personally very much opposed to this reform as it seems to me that the term length demands from the president that he be the chief of the parliamentary majority while the constitution wants the prime minister to play that role and for the president to stand above. The constitution does not allow for a normal president, plain and simple.

As it is now, we have an embedded contradiction and either the constitution should be entirely rewritten - 6th republic - or the president's term should be lengthened. As neither is likely to happen I suppose, we will stay with this contradiction and keep having trouble at the top.