Thursday, 11 April 2013

FRANCE: A Crisis of Democracy

France had hoped that President François Hollande could lead the country out of the swamp of scandal left behind by his precedessor Sarkozy. But accusations against his campaign manager combined with the offshore account held by Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac have destroyed that dream and triggered a crisis of democracy.

The crisis of confidence/leadership deepened last Thursday when the international journalist project "Offshore Leaks" brought the name Jean-Jacques Augier to light. Augier is an old friend and adviser of Hollande who, like the president, graduated as a member of the same "Voltaire" class at the elite École Nationale d'Administration (ENA), and he was the treasurer of his election campaign. He is also reportedly a shareholder in two shell companies based on the Cayman Islands. This alone has exposed him to suspicions of engaging in unsavory business practices. Augier responded immediately and rejected all allegations of illegal activities. But that's not all..

Additional accusations arose over the weekend that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius possesses a secret bank account in Switzerland. He has vehemently denied the charges and vowed to take legal action against the French daily Libération, which published the charges.

Over the coming weeks, the focus will continue to be on who knew what and when, and the Cahuzac affair promises to overshadow everything. The liar's fall from grace has become a national crisis within just a few days -- a development that can only be understood by taking a step back from the endless daily stream of news reports and examining the bigger picture.

Cahuzac's fall spells the end of all hope that the rise to power of the Socialists last May marked the start of a political renewal in France. It was this hope that swept Hollande to power, despite his lack of charisma. His election victory showed that voters were fed up with the scandal-ridden clique system of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy -- and it was a sign that the French expected their new president to shake up decades of political cronyism.

Eleven months later, the French are beside themselves with disappointment. Cahuzac's affair and his former colleagues' ( Augier and Fabius) allegations have put an end to the dream that the Socialists could return a sense of decency and propriety to the government's work. Instead, the electorate is increasingly coming to the alarming conclusion that it is living in a rotten republic, in the midst of a deep political/democratic crisis.

According to a poll conducted by TNS Sofres, 70 percent of the French have little or no confidence in Hollande's work, and Prime Minister Ayrault received similarly dismal ratings. At ninth place on the list of politicians who, in the opinion of the French, should play "an important role" now stands the leader of the right-wing populist National Front, Marine Le Pen, who has been consistently gaining in popularity for months. In the wake of the Cahuzac shock, she is calling for the resignation of the government, the dissolution of the National Assembly and immediate new elections, while left-wing populist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has been calling for a broom to sweep the "oligarchy" from the upper echelons of the state.

What is new in France these days is that one doesn't have to harbor extreme political views anymore to find such political soap-boxing attractive. There is a deep-seated sense of frustration with a system that appears incapable of renewal. The majority of the population is of the opinion that France has failed for decades to revamp its public administration and political establishment to prepare it for today's globalized world.

That is why it is hardly an exaggeration to speak of a crisis of state or crisis of democracy. The general mood in the country is one of abject pessimism, as if the current republic designated with the Roman numeral V has reached a phase of irreversible decadence. Off-handed comments about French democracy having aristocratic tendencies have long been prevalent. But they have always sounded a more charming than warranted by the true situation. Now, the French are paying a bitter price.

The fact that the office of president is endowed with virtually absolutist power has given rise to a political establishment that looks to the Elysée Palace the way the royal court once looked to the crown. Every moderately dedicated mayor must endeavor at all times to maintain direct ties to the presidential office, because it is really only there that decisions are made. Projects of every type and size -- in the regions, the départements and the provincial cities -- are rarely approved during the course of clear, transparent administrative processes, but rather at informal Parisian dinner parties marked by a spirit of nepotism. This is no stereotype, but rather France's constitutional reality.

This may give serious impetus to the constitutional debate over a new "Sixth Republic" -- a political project which has failed to make any significant headway for over 10 years now. France's ongoing erosion of democracy can only be halted with a strengthened parliament, a democratically-anchored head of government, a weaker president and, in general, a much wider distribution of power. Following the events of last week, there can no longer be any doubt that such changes are needed.

The "Cahuzac bomb," as all French newspapers are referring to the affair, has torn additional gaping holes in the political establishment, which can no longer simply be patched up using the old system. A major cabinet reshuffle, which was rumored to be under consideration in Paris on Friday, would only be a small, conventional solution -- and not well suited to tackling this serious crisis.

For the time being, there are only diverse extremists and populists who are prepared to fill the power vacuum with a political circus and contempt for politics. More difficult times lie ahead for France.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit AFP: French President Francois Hollande