Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Constitution Is 50

The Consitution of the Fifth Republic is fifty years old. Today, Le Monde publishes an interview with Jean-Louis Debré, the head of the Conseil Constitutionnel and son of the father of the Constitution, Michel Debré (does that make Jean-Louis the half-brother as well as the steward of the Constitution?).

Debré ponders the vexed question of the elusive balance of powers between the executive and the legislative branches. Except that he doesn't put it in quite those terms. He refers, rather, to the "government" and "le parlement." "Bear in mind," he says, "that the law is the means available to the government to translate its political priorities into juridical terms."

This formulation provokes a number of reflections on the peculiarity of the French system. First, note the implicit hierarchy. In French constitutional thought, the "state" is such an abstract category that it barely appears, or appears, rather, only in its metaphysical coupling with the "head" of the national body, le chef de l'État. In practical matters we have only the government, which is an entity separate from the Parlement, and the administration, which is strictly subordinate to the government. It is the government that governs, according to Debré, whereas the Parlement merely "translates" the will of the government--personified in ministers who command departments of the administration--into "juridical terms." The Parlement does not deliberate or initiate or execute. Its function is one of legitimation, according to Debré: its members are there not to represent their districts, he says, and he goes on to deplore what he sees as an unfortunate evolution of Parlement in this sense, so that its members become representatives not even of their districts but of mere "cantons," and therefore subject to the influence of "special interests," such as lobbies, which also weigh upon the actions of the "administration." In Debré's mind, only the "government" is exempt from such influences. It is the repository of the "general interest," as opposed to "particular interests."

It is of course easy to detect in this portrait the influence of a hyper-Jacobin reading of French history, but it is rare to see it spelled out in quite such stark and uncompromising terms. Compare, if you will, the American Constitution, in which executive, legislative, and judiciary are three co-equal branches, which together constitute the government of the United States. It is interesting, perhaps, that when the French wish to refer to the collection of entities that constitute the political life of the nation, they speak not of "l'État" but of "le pouvoir." In English, "government" is often the best translation of le pouvoir, yet the term "government" connotes a constitutional legitimacy that the bald evocation of le pouvoir does not. For the French, there is always something starkly de facto and therefore temporary about le pouvoir, whereas "government" in English carries a connotation of de jure constitutional legitimacy, of contractual consent under a covenant binding on the people.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Debré really puts it very clearly, but it is stating the obvious. The 5th republic was created, after all, with in mind the submission of the "Parliament" to the President. No wonder most French politicians have difficulties to swallow the way the European Parliament works, and to accept its "interference" in the serious business of crafting laws and regulations. If I am not a fan of 3rd republic style Parliamentary politics, the conception expressed by Debré makes me sick, to speak bluntly.