Friday, 22 April 2011

A Constitutional Monarchy

In common with Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Norway, Spain and Sweden, the UK has a constitutional monarchy. This means that we can enjoy all of the ceremonial functions of a British Head of State, including royal weddings, without any risk of the Queen waking up one morning and deciding to announce a policy without consulting anybody like our present French President appears to do.

The French President is the head of the Fifth Republic, which was born out of necessity in a period of crisis.  It replaced the Fourth Republic (1946 to 1958) which by 1958 was a byword for ineffectiveness, paralysed by instability. In ten years under the Fourth Republic there were twenty governments, which proved to be incapable of making effective decisions regarding decolonization.

The demise of the Fourth Republic came to a head in the Algiers crisis of 1958, when the current government suggested that it would negotiate with the Algerian nationalists. Right-wing elements in the French Army, led by General Jacques Massu, seized power in Algiers and threatened to conduct a parachute assault on Paris unless Charles de Gaulle was placed in charge of the Republic. De Gaulle did so under the precondition that a new constitution would be introduced creating a powerful presidency in which a sole executive, the first of which was to be De Gaulle, ruled for seven-year periods whilst deputies were elected for 5 years. These changes were introduced and the Fifth Republic was born.

Following a referendum in 2000, the terms of office of the President and the deputies were aligned so that they both serve 5 years and are elected at the same time. This avoids periods of “cohabitation”, in which the President and the government are of different parties, during which no significant reforms are likely.  The first President to be elected under these new arrangements was Nicholas Sarkozy in 2007. At the time I thought that this was a good idea and would lead to a structure more like the UK, where the Prime Minister is also the leader of the party and governs with a cabinet of ministers having collective responsibility. I had forgotten that the essential check on the power of the Prime Minister is that he or she governs by the consent of Parliament and by extension his party, since that normally has a majority. This means that if an important piece of legislation fails to achieve a majority in the House and he or she subsequently loses a vote of confidence, then he or she has to resign and a new government is formed.

There is no such parliamentary control over the actions of a French President who is directly elected. He or she can’t be made to resign over matters of policy, although a process of impeachment could be invoked should the President have failed to discharge his duties in a way that evidently precludes the continuation of his or her term.

In practice what seems to happen under Sarkozy, who has acheived record lows in the opinion polls, is that he announces a vote-winning policy (like a proposal to give a 1000 euro bonus to everyone who works for a company that pays dividends to its shareholders) without consulting his ministers. Everyone, from the employers to the unions, then point out the problems and difficulties associated with it, his ministers then hurriedly paper over the cracks by announcing the caveats and conditions (up to 1000 euros, but only for companies having more than 50 employees, who have paid the same as or greater dividends than last year etc) and the media then point out that what this really means is that very few people will actually benefit from this vote winning idea! Sarkozy then slips further down the opinion polls and the role of President is undermined.

Christiane, who is a convinced republican, says that he is abusing his powers and that a French President should act as the Head of State, representing the whole of the nation and not just his narrow party political interests. The constitution of the French Fifth Republic is not, however, written like that and there is no separation of roles between the Head of State and the Head of the Government. It is quite possible that it may have to be changed yet again but nobody is discussing that so far.

Personally I don't like elected Heads of State.  I'm a traditionalist. I think that writing constitutions is best avoided, since it can’t compete with about 900 or so years of tradition (including, of course, the occasional unfortunate execution) but, judging by the opinion polls, and the degree of interest in the Royal Wedding amongst our French friends, I think that after Sarkozy, the French may be ready for a constitutional monarchy! Or they could try another idea, why not elect a Queen!


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