Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Revealing Interview

In a revealing interview with Le Monde, Nicolas Sarkozy manifests a plebiscitary view of democracy that makes the comparison of his presidency with that of a certain prince-president more than idle chit-chat. When asked if proposed constitutional reforms reinforce the powers of parliament, as he claims, or simply those of the majority in parliament, he replies: "It's extraordinary to reason that way. Today's majority will inevitably become tomorrow's opposition." When the interviewer ups the ante and asks whether France isn't turning back to "enlightened despotism" while other countries have a parliamentary regime, Sarkozy answers, "Let me remind you that unlike a despot, I am elected."

Implicit in these brief remarks is a theory of democracy as a war of position between a majority and an opposition. If the majority is strong enough to control both the presidency and the parliament, Sarkozy sees no need for checks and balances. The legitimation of one-party rule comes from the ballot box--"I am elected"--and the remedy can therefore come only from the ballot box at the next election. The idea that it might be wise to create institutional obstacles to slow an impetuous majority, to oblige it from time to time to seek a supermajority or the advice and consent of the minority, does not cross the president's mind. As long as he has the power, his mission, as he sees it, is to run with it as fast as he can.

One of his characteristic rhetorical turns is also abundantly displayed. As is well known, Sarkozy likes to simplify. His favorite device is to turn every issue into a contest between "necessary reform" and plural "conservatisms" (of both the right and the left, meaning anyone who does not agree with him). Thus, when Le Monde refers to pending institutional reforms as "controversial," Sarkozy says, "This reform has been debated, it's not controversial. There is not a single political official, jurist, or journalist today who favors the status quo." As if the only conceivable opposition to the status quo were to support, without modification or nuance, the particular reform that Sarkozy favors at the moment. As though the word reform were synonymous with "my reform." He is so adept at this particular turn, he uses it so often and with such gusto, that it passes almost unnoticed.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sarkozy's rhetoric tricks are becoming more and more carricatural. This 4 part interview is proof enough. Frankly, I struggle to find the reasoning behind his decisions when he uses his tricks. And as he uses them more and more, I find it always harder to see any rationality behind his decisions.
Because of that I also feel that I am regarded as some stupid guy who just can't understand how brilliant Sarko is...

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but this is ridiculous. When Sarko says that 'today's opposition is tomorrow's majority' he is merely stating the obvious something called a 'lapalissade' in french, it is not only obvious but it is also a key point: we are talking institutions here so asking if it benefits the current ruling party is pure politics because on the long term it doesn't make any sense. Then when he reminds the reporter that he was elected, excuse me but the reporter almost insulted him. Just think for a moment, the guy is pushing a reform which significantly advances the powers of parliament and deprives the presidency of several powers and key prerogatives and the reporter finds nothing better than to ask him if he is a despot ?! If I were him I would have been mad at the guy, I guess it is just fashionable to say that Sarko is a fascist and a despot despite all evidence to the contrary.

I do agree with the rest of your article on his usual rethorical stunts, but please the first part is way over the top and extremely unfair. Don't let your blog drown into anti Sarko bias, you're much better than that.

Also I would be interested to know what's your take on the real motivations in the socialist party for opposing the reform. It is pretty clear that the text contains many advances that the PS wants so are they merely playing politics or is that something else? Could it be that they are too scared of a reform that would impose strong budgetary discipline (on the next president) and parliament oversight ? Somehow I have the feeling that it scares them because they know that it would put a stop to the kind of politics that the left has played in the past.

Unknown said...

Anonymous,
I'm afraid you miss the point. Of course it's obvious that the opposition will some day be in power. My argument, however, is that l'alternance by itself is not enough of a check in a regime that grants such extravagant powers to the presidency as the French. The stated purpose of the reform is to "rebalance" the institutions of the Fifth Republic. Some steps are taken in this direction, but they do not go far enough. I stand by my contention that Sarkozy's conception of the presidency is plebiscitary and that he takes the electoral mandate to be a grant of pleins pouvoirs. This, to my mind, is far closer to the essence of French political culture than the supposed balance of "liberty, equality, and fraternity" that some commenters in recent threads have advanced as the distinctive characteristic of French republicanism. That may be, but the Fifth Republic is far too much a presidential regime and far too little a republic, in my view. If that's over the top, then I am afraid you must consider my views aberrant. And this is not an anti-Sarkozyst criticism. I would apply it equally to de Gaulle and Mitterrand.

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