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EU, France, Politics

Crisis of democracy and sovereignty: the case of France

By Jacques Sapir

France currently suffers from a deep democratic deficit. This can be measured in the rise in abstention during elections for almost twenty years. This is widely acknowledged, even if we differ on the analysis of the causes of this situation. Some dream of institutional reform. Such as a “Sixth Republic” advanced by the Parti de Gauche (Left Party). But for such a change to be meaningful, so that it produces the effects that are attributed to it, France must become a sovereign state again. In a nation that is no longer sovereign, the people can no longer exercise that sovereignty. Democracy then withers, and gradually disappears.

False pretences

Many politicians from all sides try to take up this theme. Even the former President of the Republic, the UMP’s Nicolas Sarkozy who, however, was at the origin of the Lisbon Treaty and who had negotiated the European fiscal treaty, the TSCG, the ultimate attack on sovereignty, champion the idea. In the absence of an exercise in self-criticism and the flip flopping of his recent political career, one must seriously doubt his sincerity. It is to be feared that, like Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, he is one of those politicians who shout loudly for changes in order to mask the desire for no change at all.

Indeed, while many politicians observe a loss of sovereignty, few indicate that they want to rebuild it. Even fewer people seem to really understand what it entails. Let’s nevertheless start from that the point that is believe by many French, whether they define themselves “left” or “right”: there is no sense in discussing institutions if France is the state is not sovereign. The finding is serious. This immediately puts the issue of sovereignty in the centre of the debate.

The issue of institutions

To be sure, institutions are important. But it is not by changing the institutions that we solve a political crisis and agree on where we are and what we want to change. I fear that behind the bombast of certain statements hide a great political vacuum. The real question is how national sovereignty can be compatible with European integration. However, today there appears no option but to defend a pro-European project, albeit modified, but still a pro-European project and also pretend to want to restore national sovereignty. This desperate attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable has resulted has led to a confused message and those who have tried have paid the price.

We are actually already in a Sixth Republic. Oh, of course we did not sound the trumpets nor solemnly bang a drum. This change happened step by step, in a gradual shift towards a loss of sovereignty and a denial of democracy. Jacques Chirac’s decision to align the mandate of the President of the Republic with the National Assembly was one of the most significant. It creates a diarchy at the apex of the state, comprising the President-in-chief of the parliamentary majority, but without any accountability to Parliament. This leads to the confusion of the Prime Minister and the President’s responsibilities.

The Fifth Republic

The idea of the makers of France’s Fifth Republic in 1958, whether the Gaullist Michel Debre or Guy Mollet, the leader of a socialists (SFIO), was to separate the two functions; they were conscious that it was necessary to separate the embodiment of legitimacy from the exercise of the statutory authority of direct power.

The reform that de Gaulle introduced to the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage strengthened this idea. This balance was nevertheless still unstable. Under Georges Pompidou some of the powers of the Ministry of Economy and Finance were appropriated. The unhealthy drift was aggravated by Valery Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand, both opponents, in differing measure, to the 1958 Constitution. But it was not until Mitterrand’s successor for the change in our institutions to become an institutional reality. It was Jacques Chirac who put the President and the Prime Minister on the same level by aligning the presidential term with the legislative mandate. The function of the Prime Minister became indistinct, and the legitimacy of the President encouraged him to abuse his power. This occurred under Nicolas Sarkozy, who earned the name “hyper-president”.

It was suggested by French politician Jean –Pierre Chevènement, who foresaw the consequences of this imbalance, that we axe the Prime Minister role, turning France into a real Presidential Republic, on the US model. He was not listened to.

The new political dynamic

This significance of this change became apparent in the new political dynamic that it spawned. However, the most profound change came through practice, that relating to between relations between the French Republic and the European institutions.

First, the interpretation of the Maastricht Treaty began to hollow out the sovereignty of the Republic. But, and this is by far the most important development, the reactions of the political class to the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty project in Europe in 2005 were in a sense, fundamental. In itself, this rejection, while opening up a period of uncertainty for the European institutions, was perfectly in line with French institutions. The people are consulted, they make a decision, this is taken into account. We know that things did not happen like this, however.

The French were robbed of their vote, they were deprived of their sovereignty by a sleight of hand, in an operation in which the two major parties that share power connived. It was then proclaimed that there would no longer be referenda on European matters but rather it would be parliament that would decide, that would validate subsequent treaties.

The fact that Nicolas Sarkozy today looks back warmly at the referendum process, even while deeply and radically distorting its meaning, must not be misunderstood. It was decided by a very large majority of the political class that the French should no longer be given a voice on the subject. The Lisbon Treaty, confirming a choice whose terms were rejected by the French, signalled the surrender of our sovereignty leading to French, but also European, institutions towards ever less democratic practices.

Sovereignty and cold civil war abandonment

This gradual abandonment of sovereignty goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the main functions of the State and Parliament. This was clearly seen in the 2014 budget debates that took place under the sword of Damocles of a European Commission imposing its views. This is leading to a disintegration of the state, the effects of which can been seen, for example, by the Sivens dam

Sovereignty is at the heart of what makes a society. And it is probably no coincidence that we have the feeling that this society is disintegrating in so far as sovereignty is no longer satisfied. The asocial dimension of a number of conflicts in French society demonstrate this. Yet the proliferation of conflicts is not in itself a sufficient indicator. Every society is based both on cooperation and conflict. Rather, it is the nature of these conflicts that now poses problem.

Is a cold civil war the future that awaits our societies, particularly French society? You may think so from reading the press that describes a society given to anomie. The disintegration of society that we have witnessed for several years now raises the question of “living together”. Faced with the rise of this anomie [1], we must return to this important question: what “makes society”? Moreover, can we ask the question “what makes society” without asking at the same time the question of what kind of society we want to live in?

Translation / edit by Revolting Europe


[1] E. Durkheim, De la division du travail social, Paris, PUF, (1893), 2007.

About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope


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