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So you think the American presidential election campaign is overheated and too subject to partisan political manoeuvres and denigrating rhetoric against political opponents.
Well, it has nothing these days on France’s post-presidential election atmosphere.
More than a year after he was indisputably elected to the nation’s top office, the country’s right-of-center President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his left-of-center Socialist party opponents are still engaged in an invective-filled, obstacle-building battle about virtually his every proposal and political action.
So far, however, Sarkozy, who for the rest of this year also holds the Presidency of the European Union and just wound up a hyper-active two-week marathon of international meetings including the reception of U.S Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in Paris, has emerged victorious on almost every front.
His victories now have enhanced his own stature among frequently rebellious members of his own Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) political party. Even more important, they also have triggered disarray within the opposition Socialist party’s ranks plus, most recently, some extremely open and sharp criticism from respected party stalwarts of their own leadership’s unsuccessful knee-jerk, anti-Sarkozy strategy.
The latest and most important win for the President was his success in pushing through the French parliament a wide-ranging and controversial revision of the French constitution. The revision represents the most ambitious reform of the country’s basic law since it went into effect in 1956.
Sarkozy presented the changes as an enlargement of parliamentary power and citizens’ rights. And so they are for the most part.
They provide, among other things, a greater opposition role in setting the parliamentary agenda, limits on a government’s power to push through legislation by decree when it can’t muster the necessary votes and greater parliamentary control over senior government appointments.
They also open the door for citizens with sufficient backing and signatures to force review at the highest level of laws they believe violate their civil rights.
On the other hand, Sarkozy’s political adversaries, essentially the French Socialist and Communist parties, decried—and continue to decry—the changes, some 47 in all, as simply blatant attempts to increase Sarkozy’s own presidential powers.
In reality only a few do and they are relatively harmless such as the authority Sarkozy gained to personally address parliament as the U.S. President and the Queen of England do each year.
More actually cut back his prerogatives. One, for instance, now limits a President, for the first time, to a maximum of two successive terms in office. Another trims down his previously unfettered power to wage war without parliamentary approval.
The final vote during a special mid-July parliamentary congress held in the former royal palace of Versailles was a cliff-hanger right to the end. Finally it resulted in a Sarkozy victory by just two slim votes more than the required three-fifths majority of total votes cast by members of both houses of the French parliament to enact constitutional change. .
Although they themselves for years had urged passage of many of the reforms in Sarkozy’s program, the President’s Socialist party adversaries voted as a bloc against them in the showdown balloting,
Their opposition, the party’s spokesman admitted, was not so much against the constitutional changes themselves as the fact that it was Sarkozy who was proposing them.
The only Socialist party member who defied the Party’s orders and voted for Sarkozy’s measures was Jack Lang, a former Culture Minister and also Education Minister for Socialist President François Mitterrand in the 1980s.
Lang had been a member of the bi-partisan committee created by Sarkozy to draft the proposed constitutional changes. Defending his vote, he pointed out that not only did he consider them a stride forward for democracy in France but that it would have been “schizophrenic” for him to vote against the very measures he had helped formulate.
That has not protected him, however, from a post-vote cascade of scarcely veiled threats, castigations and accusations of treachery from members of his Socialist party leadership indicating that his punitive expulsion, suspension or ostracism from the party he has served during his entire political career is highly likely.
Despite such attacks, Lang insists he is, at heart, a Socialist and that no amount of criticism will change that.
Actually, the row over the constitutional changes, although not the result, had been predictable for some time.
Sarkozy’s had promised during the Presidential election campaign in 2007 that, if he won, he would move to revise the constitution to modernize and increasingly democratize the way the French government operates.
In terms of political theatre–or, perhaps, comedy–it would have been hard, however, to beat the flip-flopping communication campaign of the French Socialist party in its attempt to stop him from doing just that and thus saddle him with a major political defeat.
When the Socialist party and their allies came out of the country’s 2007 legislative elections with not quite but very nearly enough members of parliament to head off a three-fifths vote, they boasted that they certainly would block any constitution-altering attempt by Sarkozy.
As the President forged ahead with his plan anyway, the Socialists tried to block the effort by submerging it in hundreds of often frivolous but bureaucratically stultifying proposed parliamentary amendments.
Then, as revision-voting day approached and they realized that a massive lobbying and communication effort by Sarkozy might cause their blocking attempts to fail, they switched signals. Suddenly they began announcing that Sarkozy was sure to win and that he was just pretending the vote would be close to enhance his winning image.
When he did win, by just one vote more than necessary, they switched again and hammered the line that such a slim margin was too small to be considered a victory at all.
What they conveniently swept under the rug was the fact that a one-vote majority on a constitutional change still represents a three-fifths majority of total parliamentary votes. That’s a figure rarely attained for passage of most laws in France and, despite the Socialists post-vote claim that they will cancel Sarkozy’s revisions if and when they return to power, there is little chance that they could assemble the three-fifths vote they would need to do so.
Actually, the dismaying display of political rigidity and divisiveness plus the who wins and who loses aspects of the constitutional revision battle, attracted more attention in France than the revisions themselves.
Most surprising of all, however, was the willingness, after the vote, not only of Jack Lang but also of a handful of other respected members of the Socialist party publicly to criticize their leadership’s reflexive, fruitless and self-damaging opposition to anything and everything with a Sarkozy label.
In a lengthy, jointly signed article in the French daily, Le Monde, the disgruntled Socialist members of parliament—who, except for Lang, still had toed the party line while casting their votes—claimed their defeat on the constitutional changes was a result of the party’s “inability to free itself” from a “Pavlovien” anti-Sarkozy policy.
The result, they said was to separate the Socialist movement from French voters who want their party to look for and propose alternatives to Sarkozy’s policies, not simply and automatically to protest them.
Now that the argument is wide open within the ranks, it is likely to continue and grow between now and new leadership elections scheduled for a Socialist party congress in November.
Does that mean the Socialists, under new leadership, really might become more willing to work with Sarkozy on measures clearly in the national interest?
The odds are slim. Despite the proven fruitlessness of a Socialist strategy based simply on knee-jerk opposition instead of an alternative program the nation’s political system is so ideologically anchored that bi-partisanship measures or coalition governments as they exist in many other countries remain highly unlikely..
In addition, Sarkozy has nearly four years remaining in his current presidential term and shows no sign of easing off on the kind of measures and pressures which have so shaken up his Socialist party adversaries. In fact, he has taken ostentatious public pleasure in their dilemma.
If the past is any guide, that dilemma is not going to go away.