Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bayrou Surfaces


By some estimates, François Bayrou could have won the election if he had made it into the second round. So it's all the more surprising that the man whom a majority of the French would have preferred to Sarkozy, according to several polls, has all but disappeared from the political stage. Now he has been resurrected, however, by Rue89. Resurrected just long enough to say that, Jack Lang notwithstanding, France will always have a prime minister in addition to a president. "It's a joke" to think otherwise, he says. I'm not sure how he can be so confident, especially since he also blasts what he calls the "Americanization" of power under Sarkozy. By this he appears to mean the ubiquity of the president.

Of course there is some justice to the charge that the United States now exemplifies the "imperial presidency," but, constitutionally speaking, there are more checks, balances, and veto points in the American conception of power than in the French. Bayrou's allegation is more guilt by association (with Bush, primarily) than constitutional scholarship. Bayrou might do well to reflect on the ways in which democratic politics under modern conditions (mass media, mass parties, mass advertising, and massive amounts of money) tend toward imperial presidencies no matter what constitutional niceties are intended to prevent such hypertrophy of the executive. James Madison already doubted the effectiveness of "parchment barriers" even as he attempted to create them. Bayrou's pious hope that the prime minister might be the "bearer of autonomy vis-à-vis the president of the Republic" ignores the reality mentioned yesterday by one of the appointees to the constitutional reform commission: the heavy turnout for the presidential election and the lively interest aroused by the campaign demonstrate continued popular support for a president who, like a monarch, is the incarnation of the nation.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is definitely a very interesting debate. I must say I'm wary of Bayrou's argument. The way he presented it, his defence of the autonomy of the parliament was clearly an attack on majoritarianism. The critiques of Sarkozy's hyperpresidentialism/Americanization of power etc are - and this debate has finally brought this out though it has been I think lurking for some time - really a product of old fears of the "tyranny of the majority". What is the right position to take? The only correct position I think is to refuse to go down the road of veiled attacks of the French public, to not endorse attempts such as Bayrou's to reign in the popular will, and rather to argue *institutionally* in defence of the tyranny of the majority (better than the tyranny of the minority!), but substantively to weigh in politically in a way which will win the majority's support for whatever position you take. It would be wrong to use an institutional facade in order to curtail the power of the majority just because it voted in favour of Sarkozy and not for Bayrou, or whoever else. That is just sour grapes.

Anonymous said...

I agree with cjb that this is interesting, but interesting because it's incredibly bizarre: no one has articulated the raison d'etre of a constitutional reform, at least not a legitimate one. The so called 'sages,' some of whom have been interviewed in the press, also show very little knowledge of other constitutional models around the world, and this is worrisome. Should we send them copies of Duverger? Comparative Con Law 101, anybody?

Unknown said...

Sashimi,
The articulated reason for constitutional reform is to restore some balance to a system allegedly disturbed by the move from a 7-year to a 5-year presidency. The idea is presumably to strengthen the parliament and clarify the relationship between it and the president, perhaps by eliminating the intermediary role of the prime minister. Several members of the commission are well-versed in constitutional law and familiar with other models.

Anonymous said...

Hi Art,
Do you really think that the heavy turnout demonstrates continued support for the institution of a president ... and for its place as "the incarnation of the nation"? This is interesting, and I think I disagree.
I think the high turnout for the presidential race, for one, owes itself to many other factors, and might even demonstrate a resentment with this institution. Moreover, had this been a parliamentary system, and had these been national legislative elections with the same stakes as those for a presidential election in France (a complex counterfactual, but let's try for argument's sake ... ), might we have seen both a similarly high turnout and a similarly ‘presidentialized,’ personalized campaign? I think so.
I'll give a comparison (since, as sashimi notes, no one in France seems to care about the other European constitutional models): Germany 2002. That legislative race was run like a presidential campaign, it was obvious that the leader of the party winning the most seats in the Bundestag would become chancellor, and the potential ‘chancellors’ were not unlike presidential run-off candidates in terms of their use of the media on behalf of their parties. If you voted for the SPD, it’s because you knew you were going to get Schroeder in as chancellor. Plus, I remember the campaign manager for the SPD telling me in an interview, the night before the elections, "you have just seen the first presidential campaign in Germany."
So for me, the question is, how much of what we are seeing here in France with Sarkozy, or even in the US with Bush, is simply a problem of authority that has trouble (for strange reasons) finding legitimacy from within, endogenously, from the ways we've come to expect it to do so, under respective democratic constitutional structures?
If sashimi will be kind enough to send the French ‘sages’ a copy of Duverger, I would suggest throwing in a copy of Weber and then Freud, which I am also going to reread, because I think the problem is there, with authority and its relationship to (self perceived) legitimacy.
-Cindy

Anonymous said...

Dr. Goldhammer, thanks for your clarification.

Frankly I thought the point of the constitutional reform of 2002 (reducing the presidential mandate from 7 to 5 years) was to "restore the balance" between the president and the national assembly. They wanted to reduce the frequency of cohabitation, which they (so far) have done. So why aren't they happy? Getting rid of the prime minister, that will clarify things? Hmm.

As for the 'sages,' I'm not claiming that these well respected academics don't have knowledge of comparative law, perhaps I was a bit too passionate in my last comment. However, perhaps one could understand my energy by reading Chagnollaud's interview in today's Le Monde, where he claimed that the French system was "sui generis," and that it remains apart from other democracies. This is simply not true, constitutionally speaking: Weimar, Austria, Iceland, Ireland...not to mention Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and then many places in Africa.

And then there's Skach's point on the tenuous connection between high turnout rates and attachment to an institution (pace Chagnollaud).

Maybe I missed something ....

Unknown said...

Cindy,
I do think that the French are attached to the presidency and its function of incarnation, but I wouldn't argue very strongly for high turnout as evidence of that attachment. I was quoting the opinion of one of the "sages." I would make the case rather differently myself. It would have to do with resentment of administrative/technocratic rule and presidentialism as a remedy to the defects of a state in which a partially autonomous bureaucracy wields power in ways that people believe are difficult to control. But that's a discussion to be deferred to another time. I think the difference between this election and 2002 was the sense that both candidates wanted to assert a new autonomy for the political vis-a-vis the technocratic, each in a different way.

Your comparison with Germany is interesting, but I'll have to think more about the implications.

Sashimi, yes, cohabitation was perceived as an inherent weakness of the French constitution, just as the lack of cohabitation is now seen as a flaw tilting the balance too much toward the presidency. Frankly, I don't see how any constitutional arrangement can prevent imbalances due to shifts in the electorate. When the US got out of whack because of "what's wrong with Kansas"(Thomas Frank), among other things, an out-of-control president got into trouble from which he cannot be weaned even now that the voters have restored some, but not enough, balance. Last night's Senate vote told the tale.

Anonymous said...

Hi,
When François Bayrou criticizes the adoption of an "american model" in French politics, he mainly points two trends :

* more and more power for big firms and their lobbbyists (what we call in French "ultra-libéralisme" and several times, curiously, "néo-conservatisme", as US neo-conservatism is not understood in France) ; said otherwise, François Bayrou attacks the "power of money" ;

* the strategic alignment of France behind the US regarding foreign affairs, esp. the Middle East.

Bayrou praises the independent voice of France and Europe, intended to promote democracy in the world, and "les idéaux de la République", understtod as a general agreement between the French to put several topics and values (education, health care,…) above all money/commercial considerations.

This general criticism against the "American model" may produce some side-effects like the one Art Goldhammer highlights. (If the Prime Minister isput aside, François Bayrou may say it proves that Nicolas Sarkozy is fascinated by the US). But I would bot call that an in-depth criticism against the US Constitution. Bayrou's own constitutional propositions are inspired in many places by the US Constitution.