Wither France’s institutions? The tragic and unlamented end of a thirty-year golden age

“Toujours le chef est seul en face du mauvais destin.”

(Charles de Gaulle, Mémoires de Guerre: Le Salut, 1944-1946, Plon, Paris, 1959)

As a student, then as an actor of the French system of government over the past fifteen years or so, I have been privileged first to observe, then to work at the heart of decision-making in one of the world’s great democracies—which also happens to be one of the world’s oldest Nation-states—indeed arguably the oldest. Over that period, I have unfortunately witnessed France steadily drift away from de Gaulle’s ultra-efficient framework of government (he once famously said: “Une Constitution, c’est un esprit, des institutions, une pratique” [i]); away from the system that I had so highly admired when I studied it at Oxford.

The England in which I grew up was, in a love-hate sort of way, fascinated by France. Which, if you think of it, is not surprising: since the Norman Conquest, after all, England’s identity had gradually developed, essentially, in reaction to France’s own path to statehood. By the seventeenth century, when France’s population was greater than that of any other country in the world, with the exception of China, and ours was still tiny, Britain’s emergence as a great power alternated phases of alliance with and opposition to France—but never indifference towards her. We ceased to be enemies in 1815—though we came perilously close to war again on a couple of occasions, at Fashoda in 1896 and at Mers-El-Kebir in 1940. Yet despite having become friends, our destinies have seldom marched in tandem, except in moments of crisis. The post-war period illustrates this point: it witnessed, on our own shores, the decline of Empire and across the Channel, a resurrection of French economic power.

General de Gaulle’s determination that France should “be wedded to her own time” [ii] built further on the foundations laid by Fourth Republic technocrats. The ten years following his return to power in 1958 were characterised by an extraordinary resurgence of power, influence, innovation and, above all in the General’s view, political stability in the form of new institutions—a combination of blessings arguably not seen since Louis XIV—a miraculous fact, or rather a superhuman achievement, totally forgotten by the French today. The turmoil unleashed in the streets of the Quartier Latin in 1968 tempered that ambition: despite developing its own H-bomb and spectacularly reversing two centuries of population stagnation, France was not to be the world’s third superpower, as de Gaulle had dreamt. In the 1970s, nonetheless, it continued to be perceived as more dynamic than rapidly-declining, Labour-governed Britain. The radical break wrought by Margaret Thatcher after 1979 rather belatedly restored British confidence and assertiveness. Yet the Thatcherism in which my student character was formed in no way tempered my francophilia. My decision to enter the service of the French government was dictated by admiration for what I felt to be a model of rational, benevolent government conducted exclusively in the public interest.

The source of that model dates back to 1958, a period when France’s finances nearly collapsed in the same year that the Algerian crisis threatened to dissolve into civil war. France was fortunate then that General de Gaulle could play the providential role of devising entirely new institutions for her, better suited to the French character than the extreme form of parliamentary rule in force during the Third and Fourth Republics. Because the deputies and senators in the French parliament had been such a disruptive and destabilizing influence in the period between 1870 and 1958, de Gaulle proposed parlementarisme rationalisé, a system of government in which the executive—though of course itself subject to democratic election—can overrule legislative quibbles about policy and make its own interpretation of the general interest prevail, something which does not exist in Britain, except in those extreme and, in modern times, untested circumstances in which the Royal Prerogative can be exercised. The directly-elected Presidency instituted by de Gaulle in 1962 was the cornerstone of this system, of which I have always thought as combining the advantages of both the institutional systems that had been most successful in France’s turbulent constitutional history: monarchy and parliamentary rule [iii].

I am struck, today, by the extent to which not just opinion, but also supposedly well-informed commentators, in France and abroad, have forgotten how lucky it was that the legitimacy conferred on one man by popular mandate allowed France a welcome span of thirty years of absolute institutional stability, during which four very different men occupied the Elysée Palace. Contrary to what doomsayers had predicted, this system survived the inevitable alternance that eventually brought the Left opposition to power in 1981 after twenty-three years of opposition to the entire Fifth Republic system. François Mitterrand governed without touching the institutions that he had so violently criticised [iv].

In 1992, however, ratification of the Maastricht treaty set off a period of institutional instability and decline—a decline which, astonishingly to me, has not given rise, on the part of the French chattering classes, to any meaningful debate. In the constitutional golden age between 1962 and 1992, the French Constitution was revised just three times on minor technical points. Between 1992 and 2009, no fewer than nineteen revisions were enacted, increasingly carried out for the most trivial motives, some of which enacted provisions so poorly drafted that the French administrative and constitutional courts have expressed fairly strong reservations about them when, as required by law, their opinion was sought on the proposed modifications [v]. Despite the fact that no one often understands these poorly-drafted and incoherent modifications, no one, least of all the Socialist opposition, has sprung up to demand explanations: an exercise such as General de Gaulle’s magnificently clear and far-sighted Press Conference of 1964 would not only be unthinkable today; no one, in all likelihood, would be willing, let alone able to carry it out even if the subject were to interest anyone.

A major factor in this extraordinary process of national self-immolation has been Parliament’s determination to recover the power it had lost to de Gaulle: greater freedom in setting its own agenda, obtaining more debating time for private members’ bills and, crucially, much greater control over the drafting and execution of the state budget. The areas in which the conduct of policy has been stripped of any coherence are too numerous to be listed here; it is perhaps enough to make a general point that, not entirely coincidentally, over that period any pretence of coherence has gradually vanished from governmental policy—and the budget deficit, which had been in balance in 1980, exploded. The President, who hitherto acted only to settle fundamental policy issues, leaving implementation to the Prime Minister and the government, has increasingly stepped into the detail of day-to-day policy, including even, during a recent wave of train strikes, by pointedly demanding that the French Railways report to him every half hour with details of how late trains were running.

The fact that Britain’s ancient constitution, under the current Labour administration, has seen equally radical and, to my mind, equally debatable change [vi] is hardly a consolation. De Gaulle is known to have believed that his system was unlikely to survive him, which is something no one, even after 1997, had ever seriously imagined about British institutions. He was over-pessimistic on timing. But ultimately, he was right in his gut feeling, forcefully hinted at in the final volume of his Memoirs, L’effort [vii], that France would have to find another way of protecting itself from the divisions, indecision and, in times of crisis, utter chaos that had been a feature of its history ever since the Hundred Years’ War.

That disappointment has not, of course, made French politics and government a less fascinating subject for me. It can be expected that as the appointed date of 2012 approaches and the next presidential campaign gathers momentum, a meaningful debate about France’s institutions and the policy framework that they must accompany under the next five years will finally emerge from its current limbo.

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  1. Press Conference of January 31 1964. []
  2. Speech on June 14 1960 . []
  3. See an article I wrote about this subject ten years ago (in French). []
  4. See, in particular, his elegantly-written, but dialectically extremely violent Le coup d'État permanent, in which M Mitterrand likens de Gaulle's institutional framework to a never-ending coup. []
  5. Articles 73 and 74 of the French Constitution, as revised in 2003 and again in 2008, spring to mind. []
  6. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005, in particular, springs to mind. []
  7. Mémoires d’espoir, Volume II - L’effort, 1962…, Plon, 1971. See also Lettres, Notes et Carnets, Volume 13, Compléments de 1924 à 1970, Plon, 1997. []