Monday, June 4, 2007

An Offer They Can't Refuse?

Bernard Accoyer, currently the president of the UMP group in the National Assembly, is proposing a novel "check and balance" on the UMP's impending one-party government. This is to take the form of a permanent government audit commission. What is particularly striking is that Accoyer wants the chairman of this commission to be a deputy of "the opposition."

Now, such a proposal would require some elucidation. The term "opposition" has no constitutional definition, and the committee itself would require a constitutional amendment. He also wants another committee to be responsible for following the implementation by the administration of laws passed by the Assembly and a procedure for "advice and consent" in important appointments.

To be sure, Accoyer intends to run for the post of president of the National Assembly, so one can see moves to enhance the Assembly's role as self-interested. But these proposals strike me at first sight as good ideas.

It's interesting, too, that the proposal to institutionalize the oversight role of the opposition comes from a deputy who said last year that "our duty is to stand in the way of the left, one of the most archaic lefts in Europe, and one of the most irresponsible in the face of reality and the future."

Act Locally

Cindy Skach's post yesterday raised the question of "varieties of voice" in the political expression of the excluded. When an underrepresented group seeks to find its political voice, two broad options present themselves. Individual members of the group can attach themselves to already included groups, or the excluded can attempt to organize independently in the hope of obtaining better terms in their negotiations with insiders.

French political culture encourages the former solution. The latter is often denounced under the damning rubric communautarisme and said to be at odds with the spirit of French republicanism. So we see excluded groups represented as individuals at high levels of government in France: the example of Rachida Dati springs to mind in the present government. This route to power of course encourages identification with at least the policy goals and to some extent the values of the dominant group. Compare, in the United States, Clarence Thomas, Condoleeza Rice, and Alberto Gonzales.

The French political structure makes the second route to power for the excluded far more difficult, however. In the United States, the federal structure, with its division of power between the states and the federal government, coupled with "ethnocultural" voting patterns deeply rooted in our history, makes it possible and indeed common for power to be accumulated at subnational levels and at times exercised in opposition to the general trend of federal policy. Think of the success of certain states in promoting a progressive regulatory agenda at a time when all branches of the federal government were dominated by laissez-faire ideology. Think of the success of "ethnic" political machines at the local and state levels, even when the presidency remained out of reach for any non-Protestant.

The "immigrants" (some of the 2nd or 3rd generation--English lacks the handy French phrase issus de l'immigration) in the suburbs Cindy describes turned out to vote in unprecedented numbers in this election, in part no doubt because, rightly or wrongly, they saw in Sarkozy an implacable enemy (I will discuss this point in other posts, because I think it needs to be examined critically, but this is not the place). But if they turn out again for the legislatives (and it will be very interesting to compare the participation rates in these four proximate elections), they will have to choose largely among candidates who do not share their origins or experiences. As this article makes clear, both the PS and the UMP have a long way to go in this respect. Despite repeated promises to field a more diverse slate of candidates, the UMP counts only 15 "diversity" entries in metropolitan France, the PS only 20 or so.

This is not a very impressive response to what is arguably the most pressing problem facing France: how to include its minorities. For the PS especially, a strategy of local organizing and recruitment might well be the best riposte to what will be, for a time at least, virtual exclusion from national power (excepting of course the "renegade" ministers, whose relation to the party has become tenuous). To court the new voters by cultivating local leaders capable of giving the party roots in places where hostility to the UMP regime is strong would seem to be an obvious tactic.

Decentralization of power has of course modified the French political structure somewhat in recent years. In particular, regional councils now have bigger budgets and can serve as the linchpin of a regional power base. Ségolène Royal herself presides over Poitou-Charente. But regional power in France is still far more dependent on the central government than regional power in the US. The ministries maintain a good deal of tutelage over local authorities (mise en tutelle is a lovely phrase suggesting the kind of incapacity associated with early childhood or late debility). Organization at the municipal level is particularly tricky, especially when the municipality belongs to a region controlled by the other party. Still, this is one place where the French opposition might have something to learn from the United States as it makes ready to endure its years of wandering in the desert. New blood needs to be brought into the process, and the best way to do this is to be prepared to yield some of the fruits of office, especially the unconscionable cumul des mandats, which allows national leaders to support a retinue of faithful retainers by putting them on the payroll of city halls, regional councils, and other provincial agencies in which the big cheese maintains a local foothold while cavorting on the Parisian stage.

Who's Reading?

Today, after a fortnight in existence, this blog has collected its 2,000th reader. 54 percent of you are in the United States, 21 percent in France, 10 in Canada, and 4 in the UK, and in all 30 countries are represented. More than 500 readers have returned for at least a second visit. Among the Google searches that have landed on this blog, we find one for "President Francisco Mitterrand" and another for "Roselyne Bachelot fakes sex" (I'm afraid I can't explain either of those). Firefox is the most popular browser.

So, if you find the blog useful, please spread the word to friends and colleagues.