Death to the Republic

Death to the Republic

France’s Fifth Republic, born 55 years ago, was fashioned in the image of Charles de Gaulle. As Algeria disintegrated into civil war and Paris feared a military putsch at home, the last president of the impotent Fourth Republic, René Coty, asked de Gaulle to take over in his stead. When the aging general was told of popular fears that he would assume dictatorial powers, de Gaulle, who had previously led France’s provisional government from 1944-46, replied curtly: "At the age of 67, I’m too old to become dictator."

But the general was not too old to become a president with near monarchical, if not dictatorial powers. De Gaulle had long scorned political parties, blaming them for the fall of France in 1940 and the political paralysis that gripped the country over the crisis in Algeria. Pulsing at the heart of the new constitution he imposed in 1958 was a powerful president whose task was, quite simply, to reign. As for the mundane matters of governance, this was the task of the prime minister and his cabinet, who were responsible to the president alone.

A deeply relieved France welcomed this dramatic change: "La République est morte; vive la République."

Will this same refrain again be chanted, ringing out the Fifth for a Sixth Republic? There has been intense debate in France over the desirability of such a transition. The populist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche, has called for a new republic, as has the centrist François Bayrou and the former Green Party candidate for president, Eva Joly. While they differ on the details, they all share a common goal that would have made de Gaulle see red: an empowered legislative system where the parliament, not president, calls the shots.

Not too long ago another firebrand, Arnaud Montebourg, also argued that the Fifth Republic had exceeded its shelf life. Oddly, Montebourg now serves as a minister in the government of François Hollande — a man who, for many, represents the best argument for a Sixth Republic. Since his election in mid-2012, Hollande has revealed — repeatedly and painfully — his shortcomings as a statesman and politician. But has he also revealed the expiration date of the Republic itself?

This turn of events would not have surprised de Gaulle. The French, he believed, were unworthy of France. For this reason, he insisted on the importance of "great enterprises" which pulled his fellow countrymen from their petty pursuits and thrust France onto the global stage. As he announced in his Memoirs de guerre, France "is not really itself unless it is in the first rank. France cannot be France without greatness…dedicated to an exalted and exceptional destiny."

To this end, de Gaulle designed the Fifth Republic as a vehicle for the politics of grandeur, one marked by an unbending commitment to national independence and autonomy. The creation of the nuclear Force de Frappe, the withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military command, and repeated military interventions in France’s former African colonies all reflected de Gaulle’s preoccupation with rebuilding and maintaining this greatness.

But de Gaulle’s vehicle had just one seat and it belonged to him. Elected to a seven-year term, the president was, quite literally, irresponsible: He did not answer to his own government, much less to parliament. He instead answered to the people. This popular preeminence was reinforced in 1962, when following a failed attempt on his life, de Gaulle persuaded the French to introduce direct voting for the president. (His tool was the referendum, which, like direct election, eliminated the traditional brake of parliamentary authority on presidential power.)

At moments of extreme crisis like 1958, the solitary and unencumbered exercise of power has its attractions. Outside of such moments, as Hollande’s tenure reveals, not so much. Of course, much has changed since de Gaulle quit the political scene. A world once bipolar has become multipolar, a Europe of sovereign nations has morphed into one subject to supranational laws and authorities, and national economies are now yoked to a single currency as well as global commercial and financial activities. Even the nature of the presidency has changed: In order to align parliamentary and presidential elections, the term of office has been reduced from seven to five years.

Even de Gaulle could not be fully Gaullist under such circumstances. So much is beyond the power of the president today, even if he remains all-powerful in the domestic sphere. But because Hollande remains unchecked by the parliament, it is he who pays the price when the nation strikes against the reefs. And Hollande has been no stranger to reefs, having repeatedly failed to master political events at home. He may, by virtue of his office, be able to push through any law he wishes, but the French president can still be stymied by social contestation and supranational realities over which he has no purchase.

Earlier this year, for example, Hollande allowed a proposed law recognizing gay marriage to balloon into a vast protest movement that disputed the very legitimacy of his government. Since then, on a range of domestic issues — from a regional rebellion in Brittany against a proposed tax on heavy trucks to persuading Germany to loosen its tight monetary policies — Hollande made vows that have proved empty and delivered ultimatums that are dead letters.

Public opinion has tracked the consequences of these events. From a hopeful beginning as "President Normal" — promising a rupture with the bling-bling years of former President Nicolas Sarkozy — Hollande has tumbled to the statistic-strewn floor of modern polling in France. In November, just 22 percent of respondents approved of his performance. At the same time, Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right wing National Front, continues her climb, outdistancing Hollande by 6 percentage points in one recent poll.

These bare numbers were given unsettling flesh on Nov. 11: During the solemn ceremony marking Armistice Day, protesters booed Hollande as his car passed down the Champs-Elysée. The reasons were many, but the target was one and the same: the president. Commentators have since wondered if this unprecedented event represented a breach of the final taboos protecting the Elysée. At the very least, the historian Jean Garrigues observed, it amounted to a "trivialization of the presidency." This would be no small matter in any democracy, but it takes on far greater resonance in the Elysée-centric world of the French Fifth Republic. When political institutions all rest on the person of the president, Garrigues observes, it raises the question of whether governance is possible "when the president is no longer respected."

In the past, French leaders who found their popular support evaporating turned to the time-hallowed solution of foreign adventures. Napoléon I maintained a constant state of war to keep the French quiescent, while his nephew Napoléon III lurched into his disastrous war against Prussia in order to stave off growing popular discontent with his rule. In between, Charles X, the last of the Bourbon kings, launched the invasion of Algeria to shore up his disintegrating monarchy. Not only did all three of these efforts fail to keep their creators in power, but the Bourbon gift to France, Algeria, created the launch pad for de Gaulle’s ascension in 1958.

Hollande, it seems, has resurrected this well-worn script. Since coming to power, he has twice ordered French troops to Africa. But the military interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR) were not, like those of the Bourbons and Bonapartes, wars of choice. Instead, at least from the perspective of the Elysée, they have been thrust on France. Both interventions were arguably wars of necessity: The Islamist threat to the tottering government in Bamako and the perceived risk of genocide in Bangui required an immediate response. It fell to France to act, less by default than historical fault — its catastrophic role, first as an imperial overlord and then as godfather of Françafrique, has given it the boots and bases on the ground.

While incurably indecisive on the domestic front, Hollande has proved sharp and decisive in Africa. But can the same be said of the consequences of his actions? Hollande’s efforts to keep France at the forefront of international affairs, as Middle East specialist Ardavan Amir-Aslani has argued, risk marginalizing the country and draining the government of its credibility with friends and foes alike (a risk that deepens when the French beg Europe and the United States for material support.)

In the case of Mali, the French saved Bamako from the forces of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but also arguably encouraged the terrorist organization to attack the Algerian gas plant at In Amenas. As for the CAR, while it is far from clear if the bloody confusion is a prologue to genocide or simply one more chapter in the never-ending story of a failed state, there is little doubt that the 1,600 troops France has committed are too few to master the spiral of violence. The former head of France’s War College, Gen. Vincent Desproges, has insisted that either France must add another 5,000 troops or leave the country to its own fate. Michel Goya, a military historian and active colonel, echoed his claim: "The French forces find themselves in a delicate position: there are too few to impose themselves on events."

Neither intervention, moreover, has translated into popular support at home. Operation Serval in Mali halted his free fall in the polls for only a brief moment, while public opinion was deeply divided from the very start over the wisdom of Operation Sangaris in the CAR. Popular skepticism ran even deeper earlier this year when Hollande argued forcefully for military intervention in Syria — doubts that morphed into derision when the French president discovered he had gone over the top while the Americans and Brits were busy retreating.

Far from distracting the French from his domestic political failings, Hollande’s foreign adventures have actually sharpened the debate about whether it’s time for a major institutional overhaul. Named after animals that may soon populate France’s list of endangered species, both operations may prove to be ironic harbingers of the Fifth Republic’s extinction.