Can the Fifth Republic survive M Sarkozy?

L’unité, la cohésion, la discipline intérieure du gouvernement de la France doivent être des choses sacrées, sous peine de voir rapidement la direction même du pays impuissante et disqualifiée [i].

(Charles de Gaulle, Speech at Bayeux, 16 June 1946)

According to a journalist at France’s daily Libération, a réunion interministérielle [ii] held at the private office of the Prime Minister, M Fillon, validated the wording of a memorandum delivered yesterday to the European Commission on behalf of the French government, in reply to a request for explanations by Madame Viviane Reding, Commissioner for Justice, regarding France’s proposed compulsory repatriation policy targeted at Romanian gypsies.

Madame Reding had slapped France on the wrist for disregarding European law in discriminating against European citizens and it is normal procedure, in such cases, for national governments to respond in writing.

The arguments advanced by the French authorities to justify their action have given rise to abundant commentary. One other aspect, however, has not: in this document, the French administration stresses that two of its ministers did not know what a third member of the government was doing, despite the subject-matter being directly relevant to their portfolios. We were thus treated to the absurd and pitiful spectacle of France’s government, a distant successor to those of General de Gaulle, solemnly explaining to the outside world that one of its members had indeed published a circulaire [iii] that had displeased Madame Reding—and, in an infamous turn of events last week, compelled the office of Frau Merkel, the German Chancellor, to deny that she had expressed support for the French position on the matter; yet the memorandum hinted, somewhat disingenuously, that he had acted inappropriately, but that nothing was amiss, since the other members of that government had been unaware of the content of the offending text [iv].

Although the apathetic French press has so far ignored this point, it marks a new, and deeply disturbing, threshold in the decline in the notion of governmental solidarity: in most jurisdictions, cabinet solidarity means that all members of cabinet must support cabinet decisions; cabinet ministers cannot dissociate themselves from or repudiate the decisions of their cabinet colleagues unless they resign from the cabinet; cabinet ministers must declare their opinions as cabinet decisions are made, and must maintain cabinet confidentiality once cabinet decisions are made. General de Gaulle, the Father of France’s modern institutional framework, put strong, effective government at the heart of the new institutions he devised for her as the Fifth Republic, and his institutional vision was one about which he took religious care to communicate abundantly and clearly. He never tolerated indiscretion about government policy-making and his requirement that decisions were to be defended by all the government’s members was strictly adhered to by his successors, famously leading M Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a minister on several occasions in the 1980s and 1990s, to exclaim, before resigning in protest at the Fabius cabinet’s austerity programme in 1983: “Un ministre, ça ferme sa gueule, si ça veut l’ouvrir, ça démissionne [v].”

In short, in any other democratic nation, either the author of the circulaire, M Hortefeux or, alternatively, anyone who disagreed with him, would have resigned. Not here.

I have written before about the dangerous direction in which France’s institutions have been heading in recent years, a trend that has accelerated out of control since the current President of the Republic assumed office and enacted a wide-ranging and incoherent revision of the Constitution in 2008. What happened yesterday in Brussels, while it went unreported, takes the disintegration of General de Gaulle’s life work to its logical conclusion: I doubt the Fifth Republic can survive the disastrous direction in which its elected leaders have taken it in the past three years. Their successors will be faced with the unenviable task of governing a country whose institutions have been irreparably damaged, with their cornerstone, the all-powerful Presidency, seriously sullied in repute, probably beyond repair.

When those admirable institutions were devised between 1958 and 1962, they fitted France like a glove: at a time of considerable violence and instability, she needed the discipline that monarchical government—albeit an elected monarchy—provides. But France today bears little resemblance to France then: civil war, political assassinations are a thing of the past; the mass media have taken a hold on the political process that has altered its rules beyond recognition; and, above all, France now participates in a European supranational structure that has gone well beyond the common market for goods and services that had just been launched in 1958. France is, in many ways and despite appearances, a much more mature country than it was in 1958-1962. For all these reasons, my personal view—one diametrically opposed to the view I held until recently—is that France would be best advised to return to a purely parliamentary régime. It is now patently obvious that no future French President can hope to carry even a fraction of the legitimacy enjoyed by General de Gaulle and his immediate successors, and for that reason alone, the institution should be abolished.

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  1. The unity, cohesion and internal discipline of France’s government must be sacred: failing this, the country’s leadership will swiftly become powerless and discredited. []
  2. A réunion interministérielle, “R. I.” or “inter” is a meeting attended by all government departments involved when a policy needs to be defined or validated; it is traditionally presided by the Prime Minister or occasionally, the President of the Republic (more commonly by members of their respective private offices) and the relevant decision is then circulated to participants in a binding document called “bleu” issued under the Prime Minister’s authority. []
  3. A circulaire is a French governmental directive containing detailed instructions on the interpretation of specific point of pre-existing law or regulations. In principle it cannot edict any new provisions that go beyond the construction of existing ones. []
  4. “Ni Eric Besson ni Pierre Lellouche n’avaient connaissance (de la circulaire du 5 août ciblant les Roms, ndlr) lors de leur entretien avec (les) représentants (de la Commission européenne) le 31 août dernier” (Neither Eric Besson [Immigration Minister] nor Pierre Lellouche [Secretary of State for European Affairs] were informed of the content of the circulaire dated 5 August ultimo). []
  5. A Minister should either shut up or resign. []