France is learning parliamentary democracy the hard way – POLITICO

Paul Tayloreditor-in-chief of POLITICO, writes the column « Europe At Large ».

PARIS — France must relearn parliamentary democracy, and the first signs indicate that as a nation opposed to compromise, it does not appreciate the experience.

When President Emmanuel Macron lost his majority in the National Assembly in legislative elections last month, he threw the Fifth Republic into uncharted territory.

Certainly, since 1986, the country has experienced three episodes of so-called cohabitation, where a president of one political allegiance had to share power with a government from the opposing camp. However, each of these administrations being in the majority, they could still act with full authority over internal affairs, while working in consensus with the president on his « reserved domain » of foreign and defense policy.

This time it’s different. Today, no party or alliance has anything close to a majority. And while that doesn’t mean France is ungovernable, it does mean there’s a steep learning curve ahead.

Macron’s centrist Ensemble alliance, itself made up of three parties, currently holds the largest minority with 250 seats in the 577-member chamber. But that remains 39 short of the magic number needed to pass laws — and too adrift to rely on a handful of unaffiliated lawmakers or defectors from other blocs.

The left-wing New People’s Ecological and Social Union is the second force with 131 deputies, but its components – Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s radical insubordinate France, the center-left Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Greens – seem too divided on politics. and too concerned with asserting her independence to form a cohesive group. By choosing not to run again for Parliament, Mélenchon reduced his ability to play the role of leader of the opposition.

Marine Le Pen’s 89-seat far-right National Rally seeks to project a constructive image, offering to support bills that meet its general interest criteria, including on impact mitigation the rapidly rising cost of living. But no one wants to reach out to him, and Macron’s prime minister-designate Elisabeth Borne – a former socialist – would be deeply embarrassed if any of his measures passed solely thanks to far-right votes.

Finally, traditional conservatives Les Républicains, who clawed back 61 seats from their own electoral wreckage, should be Macron’s natural allies across a range of policies. But it is precisely because they are weakened and struggling to survive as a party that the Gaullists do not want to act as a life raft for a floundering Macron – at least not yet, and certainly not all.

Republicans still have a majority in the Senate, the indirectly elected upper house, which can amend and delay legislation, as well as block presidential attempts to amend the constitution.

However, none of this means that France is in an unbreakable impasse. While the political culture of the winner sweeps the establishment of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic – which was tailor-made for General Charles de Gaulle – will be difficult to shake, all parties have an interest in making this Parliament work, and no to blame themselves for crippling the country.

For six decades, the French parliament has largely been an echo chamber for windy rhetoric. The opposition had little or no sway, while government legislators were treated as ‘yes-yes’ – and they were mostly men – putting a bill on the statute book. Public opposition has often had more impact through strikes and street demonstrations than in the assembly.

But things are about to change.

Given that Macron has found no volunteers for a formal German-style coalition based on a negotiated political platform, it is likely that Borne will present a limited legislative program for his revamped minority government in a keynote address, without seeking the usual vote – but not mandatory. of confidence, and proposes its first measures. This will give opposition groups the opportunity to propose amendments and negotiate clause by clause on each bill.

It’s a game of chicken, and it won’t be uplifting to watch, but it could work well – at least for a while – especially as Borne begins with urgent measures to deal with the cost crisis of life. The left and far right may want to add more generous benefits or fuel tax cuts, but the government is likely to prevail since the constitution prohibits lawmakers’ amendments that reduce state resources. or increase public spending.

The challenge for opposition parties will be to show that they can make a difference by amending government bills and using their limited opportunities to initiate legislation. Communist leader Fabien Roussel was the first to seize such a chance by offering a boon tax on the profits of energy companies like Total Energie to finance a gasoline subsidy for motorists in difficulty.

« Instead of asking us if we are ready to participate in a (coalition) government, I ask them: ‘Are you ready to support such a bill?' » Roussel told a radio journalist. This decision seemed to take the government on the wrong foot since the president ruled out tax increases.

At this new game, Macron is by no means a lame duck. He may not be allowed to run for a third consecutive term, but he still has the constitutional power to dissolve parliament and call new elections at a time of his choosing, as well as the right to call a referendum on certain issues. .

If he can organize the circumstances, or if they are imposed on him – for example by a rejection of the budget – he could call on the country to end the “extremist” obstruction and give him a working majority.

To avoid such a confrontation with an uncertain outcome, however, Les Républicains and perhaps some socialists who do not share Mélenchon’s anti-capitalist and anti-NATO agenda have an interest in keeping the Borne government afloat, provided that it make some concessions.

The parliamentary system got a bad rap under the Fourth Republic from 1946 to 1958, when unstable revolving-door governments formed and overthrown in clandestine deals struggled to maintain the confidence of an unstable legislature in which Communists were the largest opposing force, but had to be kept out of power during the Cold War. De Gaulle denounced it as « the regime of parties », and he insisted on a vertical system with a powerful presidency and a lying assembly as a condition for returning from the desert.

Yet the Fourth Republic was in fact a politically prosperous one that presided over postwar reconstruction and rapid growth, enacted key social legislation, began decolonization, and launched civilian and military nuclear programs. It floundered mainly due to the Algerian War of Independence.

Today, Macron has more power than any president of the Fourth Republic has ever had. The return of a greater element of parliamentary government in France should be welcomed – not feared.

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