Thursday, April 24, 2008

Presidential Style

Annick Bonnet reviews a book by Nicolas Mariot, Ils se présidentialisent, which analyzes the way in which presidents of France have "inhabited" their functions since 1848. To judge from the review, the book concentrates on the various instruments by which presidents have sought to establish and project power over institutions and civil society. These instruments include trips, local visits, ceremonies, speeches, etc. Mariot attempts to diminish the contrast that other commentators have established between the presidency of the Fifth Republic and earlier presidencies. Readers may appreciate the accompanying photo gallery.

Students of comparative politics may wish to compare Mariot's approach with the very different one of Stephen Skowronek in The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. Skowronek is interested not so much in the instruments of leadership as in relationships between leaders, their predecessors, and the political context. His complex argument, which is very difficult to summarize, hinges on the observation that some leaders define themselves as fulfilling a promise initiated by others while others define themselves as reversing or undoing a predecessor's program that has allegedly ended in impasse or disaster.

The notice of these two books is particularly pertinent as we await President Sarkozy's confrontation with the press later today. Sarko will be availing himself, in Mariot's terms, of an instrument he has made his own: the conversation with selected media stars in an august Elysian setting. In Skowronek's terms, however, he will be attempting a difficult maneuver: having defined himself initially as both the opposite of his predecessor (Chirac) in terms of style and energy and the continuator in terms of fundamental policy orientation (a cautious liberalization of the French social model in order to preserve its overall structure while removing supposed fetters to growth), he will now be redefining himself, I imagine, in opposition/continuation of himself. He has already said in a myriad of ways, "I have changed, and yet I remain the same." The question now is how he will rearticulate this basic message.

In Skowronek's analysis, the president most gifted at this delicate operation was Franklin D. Roosevelt: when the initial thrust of the New Deal encountered major obstacles, FDR used failure and defeat (particularly the rejection of the NRA by the Supreme Court) to remobilize the forces that had brought him to power in the first place. Sarkozy's challenge is greater: he is perceived to have failed despite the absence of opposition as formidable as that posed by the U.S. Supreme Court. He was also a continuator rather than a renovater (despite his rhetoric to the contrary) when he first came to power. Hence he cannot blame the forces of reaction and must rather explain the inadequacies of his initial analysis of the situation he faced. He can of course plausibly blame an unfavorable global economic conjuncture, but having defined himself as a voluntarist whose will is equal to any circumstantial challenge, to take that tack would be to appear weak and self-repudiating.

It will be interesting to see how he rises to the challenge.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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