Opinion 'Omni-President' Sarkozy Fritters Away French Democracy

Part 2: No Credible Opposition


The institutional reform recently adopted in France can only amplify this concern. The French constitution, originally drawn up to give the parliament more rights, has done just as much to strengthen the president's overwhelming role and trim the powers of the government. That government, elected by the people and independently of the president, now acts as a private cabinet at the Elysée Palace, a place almost as brimming with power as the Versailles of France's former kings. Sarkozy can attend a meeting of the president and prime minister alone, now that he has virtually taken on both functions. And he has practically reduced the members of the cabinet to the roles of department managers.

In this intoxication of power, Sarkozy feels responsible for everything, giving speeches about Alzheimer's disease and psychiatry, automobile manufacturing, residential construction and urban development, presenting plans to promote sustainable growth and combat homelessness, unveiling his visions on Africa's future and Quebec's prospects, and airing his ideas on wind energy, Tibet and rugby. And when he has nothing better to do, he applies for French cuisine to be awarded UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status. His speeches and projects are rarely earth-shattering. An eternal campaigner, he is constantly searching for the next sudden crisis. As a result, the French political system lacks, in these uncertain times, an important calming influence, a reliable frame of reference, a neutral authority.

Now if Sarkozy were at least the man of action he purports to be, the master of the common good, one could easily downplay such ideas. But the precarious situation within the system is exacerbated by the fact that the president, upon taking office, appears to have forgotten everything he once promised to the weaker elements of society, while strictly keeping all the promises he made to society's strongest members. Nowadays no one in France doubts that Sarkozy has abandoned the principle of equal treatment of all citizens. Instead of acting as the "president of all Frenchmen," he is more like the head of a clan who has finally worked his way up to the big leagues.

A major operation currently underway offers an instructive insight into the Sarkozy method. Under a reform to take effect in January, stations within the state-owned television network will no longer be permitted to air advertising after 8 p.m. Sarkozy is selling the reform as a quality improvement, viewers are pleased and everything seems to make sense. There is only one problem: Reduced advertising revenues could jeopardize the funding for the state-owned stations, which have a tendency to air programming critical of the government. The change also raises fears that stations forced to rein in spending will cut back on serious journalistic programming first. These fears, too, are more than justified, because Sarkozy has made sure that his new law is structured to ensure that the president appoints the future directors of public broadcasting. Clearly, the intended side effect is that private broadcasters, many of them owned or recently acquired by none other than Sarkozy's immensely wealthy friends, can look forward to significant increases in revenue beginning in January.

The French People Always Come to Life

This, of course, should be the hour of the opposition. But -- and this too poses a great threat to French democracy -- that opposition has faded from the scene. The Socialist Party, the only group that would have been capable of coming up with a true alternative for the next presidential election in 2012, has maneuvered itself to the brink of self-liquidation in the last few weeks. Incapable of cleaning up its own internal strife, and terrorized by its old and new luminaries' claims on power, the Socialist Party has ceased to be an option for the time being. The remaining figures making noises in the political sphere are either too bland, like François Bayrou and his "Democratic Movement," or too unrealistic, like the far left-wing politician Olivier Besancenot, who recommends the abolition of globalization as a cure-all against the current crisis. If this is the competition, Sarkozy has little to fear.

Nevertheless, he and his team have no reason to gloat. In conflict situations like the current one, when the political machinery gets in the way of things, the French people have always come to life. It was only three years ago when barricades were burning around Paris and the government declared a state of emergency in the suburbs to quell the unrest. Since then, not a single problem that led to those riots has been addressed in an even remotely serious way. Sarkozy, who had promised a "Marshall Plan" for the suburbs, or banlieus, has lost interest in that effort. Instead of investing money and enlisting economists, urban planners, architects and teachers to address the problem, new police units are being sent to social hot spots. That tactic, at least, could soon prove to be far-sighted, given the palpable signs of growing unrest.

The forces of disintegration are tearing away at France more sharply than elsewhere, because, even though its society is a diverse mix of ethnicities, religions and refreshingly progressive citizens, the glue that holds it all together is crumbling. Although this process did not begin under Sarkozy, the president has also done nothing to curb it, bring calm to the situation, or perhaps even find new common ground. On the contrary, he only undermines the cohesion of the nation with his policy of "division instead of reconciliation." And that policy, in its current form, provides a lesson on how democracy and the constitutional state cannot be taken for granted, but instead must be secured, carved out and developed, day in and day out, and filled with meaning, intent and virtue. Germany has learned this lesson more bitterly than most other countries. France, so often on the sunny side of history, must do its damnedest not to forget it.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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