Putin, France and the Era of Elective Monarchy

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PARIS – Fifty years ago, General Charles de Gaulle seized power in France in what was, in essence, a legal coup d’etat. True, the General had been called upon and elected by the floundering French Parliament. But pressure from the French army, and rebellion in Algeria, did not give Parliament much of a choice. The ailing French republic’s political leaders hoped that de Gaulle could end the Algerian war, yet keep Algeria French. De Gaulle’s agenda was very different: he wanted to rewrite the Constitution and to found a new “Fifth Republic” for France.

The war in Algeria was, for de Gaulle, but another symptom of a dysfunctional state, an analysis that went back to his own experiences in 1940, when the French government proved unable to resist invasion by Hitler’s Germany. Only a strong leader, de Gaulle thought, could have avoided defeat.

The war in Algeria was, for de Gaulle, but another symptom of a dysfunctional state, an analysis that went back to his own experiences in 1940, when the French government proved unable to resist invasion by Hitler’s Germany. Only a strong leader, de Gaulle thought, could have avoided defeat.

In his memoirs, de Gaulle stated his preference for restoring the monarchy after the Liberation. But public opinion was not prepared for that, and the heirs to the French crown were not up to the task. The alternative was an elected monarch: the Fifth Republic’s Constitution, ratified 50 years ago this week, was crafted around that central principle.

What de Gaulle despised about the Fourth Republic was what he dubbed the “regime of the parties,” which put their own interests above the national interest. Only a king or an elected monarch could incarnate the national interest. Remarkable propagandist that he was, de Gaulle convinced the French that the Fourth Republic was a disaster – a canard that has remained common wisdom ever since.

But de Gaulle’s vision of government resonated with the convictions of many French and, above all, with many public intellectuals. The French have seldom been enamored of democracy. The philosophers who were the intellectual fathers of the 1789 revolution longed not for democracy, but for enlightened despotism, which is what many French still look for when they elect a president.

Democracy from a French perspective looks too American. The French are thus more ready to believe in the cultural diversity of nations than in the universality of democracy. This explains why French governments of both right and left tend to support despotism in countries where it seems “natural.” Despots in Arab countries, China, and Russia do not shock the French.

Indeed, no French president would ever think of exporting democracy. As former President Jacques Chirac said: to impose democracy in Arab countries means that you despise their cultural differences.

As de Gaulle wished, the French president has powers without equal in any other Western democracy. Montesquieu’s idea of a separation of governmental powers plays no role in France. Parliament is weak, the judiciary is under executive control, the media is kept under surveillance, and there is no constitutional guarantee of free speech.

The president’s powers are limited only by accident, when a majority in parliament happens to be against him: this happened to both the socialist François Mitterrand and the conservative Jacques Chirac. Each had to “cohabit” for a time with a hostile parliament. Military and foreign affairs – what the French system deems the president’s “reserve domain” – are always in the president’s personal control. But when president and parliament are controlled by the same party – Nicolas Sarkozy’s current situation – the “reserved domain” knows, in practice, no limit.

Despite this huge concentration of powers in the presidency, or perhaps because of it, the Fifth Republic has failed to perform better than more democratic Western regimes. The French state budget is chronically ill-managed, running deficits on par with Italy. Many grandiose Gaullist economic projects – from the Concorde supersonic airplane to a national computer industry – failed. Most public-sector industries have been near bankruptcy until saved by competition and privatization.

France’s elected monarchs have few reasons to be proud of their supposedly efficient state. The exception may be the military and the diplomatic service: following de Gaulle’s lead, all French presidents have financed the military generously. The Gaullist tradition has also been maintained by an independent diplomatic corps that tends towards “non-alliance with allies” and is often perceived as perfidious and arrogant.

Indeed, through much of the Cold War, de Gaulle appeared to want to avoid having to choose sides between the United States and the Soviet Union. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had the best relations with East European communist leaders among all Western leaders. Chirac vociferously opposed the war in Iraq. Sarkozy nowadays acts more in harmony with the US, NATO, and the European Union, but does so because he wants to be a world leader.

But the real problem with the Fifth Republic might be its influence beyond France. Following de Gaulle’s lead, elective monarchy or enlightened despotism is now perceived as a legitimate alternative to parliamentary democracy or US-style separation of powers. Most of Latin America, except for Brazil and Chile, are elective monarchies, a modernized version of the old caudillo tradition. Russia, after a brief attempt at democracy under Boris Yeltsin, has reverted to a form of unenlightened despotism under Vladimir Putin. It holds elections, but more as a nod to modernity than to represent the people’s will.

Like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, the French Revolution’s clarion call for universal rights can be admired only from behind bullet-proof glass, and it is definitely too precious to be exported.

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