This blog is hosted on Ideas on EuropeIdeas on Europe Avatar

Latest

France 2017: The end of ridicule?

RidiculeFor over forty years, since Maurice Duverger coined the expression in 1974, ‘The Republican monarchy’ has no doubt been the most frequently used metaphor for the Fifth Republic. In countless books, essays and articles, the presidential system and all its corollaries –power, pomp and protocol – have been portrayed as a legacy of pre-Revolutionary, absolute monarchy. It is not by accident that yesterday’s ceremony of transfer of power between François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron was spontaneously referred to as ‘enthronement’ (‘intronisation’).

It is true that the French presidency is more than a political job description. As pointed out on these pages last December, the capacity of ‘incarnation’ or ‘embodiment’ of the function is a primordial asset among the check-list of qualifications required for the job. (A quality Marine Le Pen worked hard to obtain over years before throwing everything away in a particularly misguided fortnight between the two election rounds).

Emmanuel Macron, if only for his age and the narrative of pragmatic, liberal revolutionary he has created from scratch, seems to be predestined to be a different kind of Republican monarch. But unlike other candidates, like Jean-Luc Mélenchon for instance, Macron has never publicly promoted the idea of a Sixth Republic. Not only because he has identified more urgent reforms to carry out, but also because he owes the system a great deal: it is only the hyper-personalised campaign mode of the presidential election that made it possible for him in the first place to overthrow the entire political spectrum in record time without the backing of an established party and a network of local office holders across the country. In a full parliamentary democracy like Germany he would hardly have succeeded in achieving a similar upheaval (or ‘coconut shy’, as Laurent Fabius so nicely said yesterday in his official, and yet very personal, proclamation speech).

‘At the same time’ (to use Macron’s favourite conjunctive adverb), he has repeatedly announced that, if elected, he would interpret the presidential function in a very Gaullist manner, situating himself above party politics, defining the overarching political objectives, and letting the prime minister and his government do the nitty-gritty work.

That leaves us with an institutional framework, where everything remains in place and the only major factor of change may be the style in which the functions are ‘embodied’. In other words: the manners and behaviour of the president, the frequency and tone with which he addresses his citizens, the kind of personalities he chooses for top positions (starting with his first Prime minister today), the leadership style with which he manages his collaborators, the dignity of his private life.

Much has been written over the decades about the behavioural legacy of the court society in contemporary France, and much of it is perfectly pertinent. Whoever took the time to go through Norbert Elias’s painstakingly detailed, seminal analysis of The Court Society dating from the 1930s or Alexis de Tocqueville’s retrospective account of social interaction in L’ancien regime et la revolution (1856) can only be bewildered by the many behaviour patterns shaped in Versailles, which have survived all the disruptions and caesuras since 1789.

The disbelievers

In resigned exasperation.

More recently it has become increasingly common to link the persistence of the court ‘habitus’ in French social and political culture to the shortcomings of the Fifth Republic. Former Prime minister Dominique de Villepin theorised, in a quickly drafted, somewhat disappointing little book, about ‘The Court Spirit’, which he considered to be ‘the French malediction’ (2010). More recently, the renowned political journalists Thomas Legrand and Ghislaine Ottenheimer invested significantly more in-depth field work, only to come to a similar conclusion, shaking their heads in disbelief over the enormous mismatch between what the country needs and what it is stuck with. The respective titles of their books nicely sum up their quiet exasperation with the Republican monarchy: ‘Let’s stop electing presidents!’ (2014) for the former; ‘Presidential poison’ (2015) for the latter.

Diarists of the court: Saint-Simon and Patrick Rambaud.

Diarists of the court: Saint-Simon and Patrick Rambaud.

No one, however, dealt with the phenomenon in a funnier and more revealing manner than Patrick Rambaud. A well-known author, laureate of the Prix Goncourt and accomplished master in pastiche and parody, Rambaud has been the 21st-century ‘chronicler of the court’ since the ‘enthronement’ of King Nicolas I in 2007. What started, according to the author, as a ‘therapy against the depression’ into which Sarkozy’s election had thrown him, finally became a series of a total of eight ferocious, hilarious, and at the same time desperate diaries of the Fifth Republic’s own kind of court decadence, covering the entire two quinquennats of Sarkozy and Hollande. Lovers of classical French literature could take great delight in the wonderful imitation of the Duke of Saint-Simon’s lucid and indiscreet ‘Memoirs on the reign of Louis XIV’; others could simply marvel at the incredible human pettiness of today’s sycophants and toadies humming around his  mediocre majesty in the Elysée.

A hilarious series of eight chronicles. Not to be continued.

A hilarious series of eight chronicles. Not to be continued.

Over ten years Rambaud offered a most welcome cathartic laughter about the ridicule of French democracy and its wildlife populated by cynical spin doctors and vain careerists, dangerous ideologists and ruthless populists, evil corrupters and stupid corrupted (which are of course species for which France may be the best biotope, but of which is certainly does not have a monopoly).

Given the remarkable ease with which Emmanuel Macron responded to behavioural expectations during the long ceremonial liturgy yesterday, while bringing a whole new freshness and sincerity to the mandatory coronation rituals, chances are that Patrick Rambaud will have no reason to continue his chronicles. He may even be able to come off his anti-depressants.

One of the most interesting aspects of the next quinquennat will thus be to observe whether this atypical, visibly determined president will be able to change the style of the Republican monarchy from within or whether the function will inexorably impose its ‘habitus’ under the weight of tradition, apparatus, and decorum. In other words: will the new King modify the behaviour of the court, or will the court culture, slowly but mercilessly, tame the new King?

Style is not nothing. Eliminating the ridicule from the top-tier of French politics was not an official programme point in the electoral platform of En marche! It would, however inject an unexpected new stability into a ramshackle system, and shift the focus away from form to substance, open the minds for renewal. Although non-quantifiable, it would be one of the new monarch’s most outstanding and lasting achievements.

Albrecht Sonntag
@albrechtsonntag

This is post # 22 on the French 2017 election marathon.
All previous posts can be found here.

COMMENT

Recent Articles

France 2017: Disruptive

Published on by | No Comments
Louvre 1

Emmanuel Macron had no chance of winning the presidential election. Every textbook on French politics or contemporary history will tell you so. He had no chance, and he seized it. After his first large-scale rallies, in Strasbourg in October 2016 or in Paris in December, all serious commentators indulged in gentle mockery. Partly because his […]

France 2017: The Bridges of May

Published on by | No Comments
Avignon-2

It’s the first thing the French check out when they’re back from their summer holidays and ‘La Rentrée’ – that fateful moment when normal life resumes in early September – is looming again: on what day of the week will the national holidays fall in the forthcoming school year? 1st and 11th November (All Saints […]

France 2017: Old fault lines, new salience

Published on by | No Comments
Fault lines 2017

‘France has voted like it never did before’, was the headline of Spiegel Online on Monday morning, and many other foreign observers expressed similar views on the manner in which the traditional parties of the Left and Right were kicked out of the competition by an overwhelming desire of renewal of the political class. But […]

France 2017: That ‘pschitt!’ feeling

Published on by | 1 Comment
Cork pschitt

‘Pschitt!’ is – at least in colloquial French – the disappointing sound of flat champagne, a deflating balloon, or a damp firecracker. It is also a good description of the feeling that many French voters will inevitably have on Sunday evening in front of their television screen. With an unprecedented degree of uncertainty, with virtually […]

France 2017: Ready for the Fake Presidency?

Published on by | No Comments
throne

Oops – they did it again! They made us believe that the Fifth Republic provides its president with a particularly wide array of prerogatives, little constrained by checks and balances, and reigning well above the heads of a weak parliament. And with all the hype around the presidential election, this highly personalised ‘encounter of a […]

France 2017: Where have all the flowers gone?

Published on by and | Comments Off
Greens

Over the last twelve months the Greens have had quite a few celebrations across Europe: Winfried Kretschmann was re-elected as minister-president of Baden-Württemberg in March 2016; in December Alexander von der Bellen succeeded in stopping the rise of the Austrian populists in the presidential elections, and in the Dutch general elections, Jesse Klaver quadrupled the […]

France 2017: And then there were eleven

Published on by | Comments Off
Angers, April 2017: the first time ever that the term 'Frexit' appears on a campaign poster.

Why do they do it? Just for four precious weeks of fame? For seeing their faces on billboards and being invited to Parisian television studios? For walking into the polling station on election day and finding their names printed on the ballots in the same font and size as the big political celebrities? For fulfilling […]

France 2017: Polling paradoxes

Published on by | Comments Off
Sondages 1

The French take delight in pointing out that they are World Champions in producing political opinion polls (only to shake their heads in disbelief and despair about their own addiction). While the claim to this honorary title may not be corroborated by empirical data, it confirms the impression of saturation that a politically interested individual […]

France 2017: Could she possibly win?

Published on by | Comments Off
Presidente Cover

What if the good old ‘scarecrow’ effect did not work anymore? What if Marine Le Pen managed to break the famous ‘glass ceiling’ of the French electoral system, which has kept her out of governmental responsibility so far? What if voters were no longer willing to rally around a ‘front républicain’ between round 1 and […]

UACES and Ideas on Europe do not take responsibility for opinions expressed in articles on blogs hosted on Ideas on Europe. All opinions are those of the contributing authors.