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Seeing Double: Reflections on France

Seeing Double: Reflections on France
 Blanche Leridon
Executive Director, Editorial and Resident Fellow - Democracy and Governance

Are political duos an effective alternative to the solitary and centralized exercise of power? This question is at the heart of our Seeing Double series published in the past month. Our six portraits of political duos are all illustrations of the delicate, sometimes unnatural, act of sharing or transferring power and responsibilities. The United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United States and Israel: the conclusions, perspectives and, at times, contradictions of each of these examples are insightful in their specific way. They also shed light on the French exception, in a country marked by one person's political dominance, elected by direct universal suffrage: the president. This piece takes a look at France following Seeing Double’s conclusions.

The land of Jupiter?

"There is no room for two male crocodiles in the same pond." This African proverb, quoted by Jacques Chirac, sums up the failings of the French institutional system. The spring 2022 presidential campaign highlighted once again the centralized and solitary nature of France's presidential power. The system centers around an "absolute presidency". Constitutionalist Georges Vedel predicted this outcome in 1960 before the 1962 electoral reforms. In other words, his prediction far from covers the contemporary manifestations of the "absolute presidency". In an increasingly fragmented society, the exercise of power by a single individual sows deeper division seeds and increases mistrust of democracy and politics. Some have tried to make the prime minister the "main opponent" by advocating for a third voting round during the elections, and the position certainly has pre-eminence in certain institutions. It does not come close, however, to the power of the president.
Few western democracies have political systems that give such far-reaching powers to one or the other. In fact there is room for two in many of them (at least on the surface level).

The spring 2022 presidential campaign highlighted once again the centralized and solitary nature of France's presidential power. 

This is particularly pronounced in the United States, where the vice-president plays a central role both in the election of the American president, in the exercise of power and in its transfer. (Indeed, the vice-president serves as a "ticket" meant to garner more votes: Obama, Trump and Biden each chose their future VP carefully, favoring complementarity to attract the broadest electorate possible). Since 1945, six vice-presidents ascended to the Oval Office, with more or less support from their predecessors.

However, in her in-depth examination of the dynamics at work since 2008, Amy Greene demonstrates that particularly close-knit duos effective in their quest for power tend to weaken once in charge, and that the president is ultimately reluctant to make space. The Biden/Harris tandem offers the most striking example of this phenomenon playing out today.

Collaborate and conquer, divide and rule?

Historian Colm Murphy in his fascinating piece on the mythical Gordon Brown/Tony Blair tandem offers us an example of a duo winning power together. Founded in the early 1980s, the couple enabled the Labour Party (dubbed "New Labour") to regain power in the United Kingdom in 1997, after 18 years of consecutive conservative governments. The exercise of power however proved to be much more delicate. After 13 years of Labour governments (ten under Blair, three under Brown), this duo imploded, resulting in a lasting break between both men.
In Germany, the two leaders of the German Greens, Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, succeeded in bringing Die Grünen to victory thanks to a "dyarchy" expressly provided for in their party’s statutes. In his Seeing Double piece, Roderick Kefferpütz shows that the dyarchy, combined with great chemistry and complementarity between the two pragmatic representatives, allowed the party to book successes where others have failed. It is worth emphasizing just how exceptional this situation is. Having a co-presidency enshrined in the foundational texts could be an inspiration for French political groups that are hesitant to adopt such configurations. A rare exception is provided by the Parti de Gauche (PG), which was co-chaired by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Martine Billard from 2009 to 2014, at least on paper. Nevertheless, while the PG statutes expressly address the fight against "the cult of personality", France Insoumise, which grew out of the PG in 2016, does not seem too preoccupied with the issue. Nothing in our institutions encourages power sharing within parties.

The National Assembly rules require the appointment of a single chairman for each group. With its 23 deputies, the left-wing group Europe Ecologie les Verts (EELV) is forced to present its co-presidency as a matter of principle, as it had already done between 2012 and 2016. These limitations lead some observers to speak of the "presidentialization of French political parties" (Hugues Portelli) or even of "one-man parties" (Christophe Bouillaud).

Having a co-presidency enshrined in the foundational texts could be an inspiration for French political groups.

This process, along with a growing focus on media coverage and the personalization of power, is particularly marked in France because of our institutions and the election of the president by direct universal suffrage, as argued by Frédéric Sawicki in his essay "La présidentialisation contre les partis ?" (Presidentialization against parties).

Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock avoided this pitfall during the first three years of their collaboration. Together, they led Die Grünen to historic victories in the 2019 regional and European elections, before winning the Greens a spot in the government in 2021, after 16 years in the opposition. The victory, however, came at the cost of a deterioration of the couple's dynamic, when the inevitable question of who gets the lead came up. Baerbock was chosen to represent the green alternative to the outgoing chancellor. The decision marked the end of the pair's close relationship.
We can draw a first conclusion from the three examples above: nothing seems to unite people more than the common struggle for victory. It's once you're in charge that things get complicated. It seems as if the most successful and genuine political companionships can only grow out of adversity. The French case confirms this hypothesis with as an illustration the Valéry Giscard/Jacques Chirac duo. The former owed a large part of his 1974 victory to the latter, who managed to rally 43 deputies from the Union des démocrates pour la République (URD). He was appointed prime minister as a token of gratitude. As explained by political scientist Philippe Raynaud, however, the tandem imploded soon after taking power. It should also be said that Chirac - a fine tactician - was already planning his next move in 1973. He declared the split unilaterally.

Do crises give rise to political duos?

Crises are a form of adversity, be they political, social, economic or related to public health. It is tempting to resort to the image of the strong and providential leader in a time of crisis, but it is not inevitable. Historian Marc Lazar shows us as much in his piece on the very short-lived tandem formed by Sergio Mattarella and Mario Draghi in Italy from February 2021 to July 2022. As Marc Lazar writes, "though Mario Draghi was more often in the media spotlight than Sergio Mattarella, Italy was truly run by a duo, or better yet, a tandem".

Crises do not necessarily favor the emergence of strong, solitary leaders. 

The deft politician and the technical economist worked well together, first to fight the Covid-19 pandemic - notably by implementing a successful vaccination policy - and then to develop the National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which was to ensure the economy's recovery and form the basis for the country's future transformations. 

They had given themselves until the 2023 elections, but unfortunately did not make it that far. While not seen through to the end, this example shows us that crises do not necessarily favor the emergence of strong, solitary leaders. They can also give rise to broader and more unifying political alliances, though these may be more ephemeral, as they are solely guided by shared concern for the country's future.

Did Israel's political crisis also explain Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett's takeover from the tenacious Benjamin Netanyahu in June 2021? Though ephemeral as well, Samy Cohen demonstrates that the duo did achieve a positive track record. They handled the public health crisis well, improved the internal political climate, resumed dialogue with Egypt and Jordan, voted on a substantial budget for Arab-centered policies… The rotation between positions that was enshrined in the coalition agreement may not have taken place, but this was mostly due to exogenous factors and the coalition's fragility in the Knesset at the time. This is similar to the Italian case, where a very broad coalition suffered from the same weaknesses. The "rational partnership" itself was not fundamentally challenged.

The national and the local

Finally, complementarity can also be found between a central power and local executives with wide-ranging prerogatives. As Benoît Pellistrandi explains, this is the case in Spain. Though Spain is a highly decentralized country, the powers of its prime minister have strengthened over the course of a few decades. However, this process has been accompanied by the strengthening of Spain's so-called autonomous communities, which have become essential instruments of government and administration as more powers have been transferred to them over time. Catalonia provides a particularly telling example. In his conclusion, Benoît Pellistrandi writes: "We know the French centralized system, the English parliamentary model and the German transactional model; Spain adds a polycentric model to this list. The system's origins are fascinating, rooted as they are in both history - think of the viceroys of the old monarchy - and democracy - there is no leadership without electoral support. One might ask whether it is not more advantageous to be first in one's own village rather than second in Madrid. Better still, is it not preferable to hold the reins in a regional stronghold than to try and govern a country that has seventeen other governments?

The same can hardly be said about the French model, as the author rightly points out. Despite successful reforms at the sub-national levels, the French system remains as centralized as ever. The presidents of the country's 13 regions certainly carry more political weight since reforms implemented in 2015, but it remains very limited compared to the bastion of power in Paris.

Complementarity can also be found between a central power and local executives with wide-ranging prerogatives.

Pompidou and De Gaulle: the tandem that sealed the fate of all future French duos?

France has had its fair share of duos as well, of course. The partnership between General Charles de Gaulle and Prime Minister Georges Pompidou is the inaugural example in the history of the Fifth Republic (following the November 1962 referendum). Their tandem is both the most successful and the most ambivalent, which can partly be explained by looking back at their history. The two men belonged to different generations and their styles could not have been more different. Pompidou taught preparatory literary courses at the Lycée Henri IV. He met De Gaulle in 1944 and joined the provisional government's presidential cabinet, where he was in charge of education. He quickly became De Gaulle's "most trusted advisor". In 1973, he said that "no one, besides his family, has been closer to him than I have, has known his thoughts better than I have, and has been able to observe the man as much as I have, as an individual and as a statesman". 
When De Gaulle returned to power in 1958, he called on Pompidou to head his cabinet until he settled into the Elysée Palace. Pompidou never really left the general: he was appointed to the Constitutional Council in 1959 and was asked to prepare the Evian Accords, signed by France and Algeria's provisional government in 1962. After the accords were approved by referendum, De Gaulle appointed Pompidou to the prime minister’s post. This was a surprising decision, as Pompidou was neither a politician, nor a parliamentarian, nor even a Gaullist, which may have caused some bewilderment or even hostility among Gaullists and other elected officials. Pompidou remained De Gaulle's stalwart prime minister from 14 April 1962 until 10 July 1968, a record-breaking amount of time. Deeply affected by the instability of the Fourth Republic, Pompidou never stopped defending De Gaulle's Fifth Republic. He gradually established himself as the general's natural successor and, by the same token, the protector of the presidential system, though its imperfections were already noticeable. As a duo, De Gaulle and Pompidou were notoriously unbalanced. Pompidou operated in De Gaulle's shadow until 1968, when the latter grew discontent with the former's aspirations and the inevitable split occurred. As the news magazine Nouvel Observateur wrote at the time: "The 'successor' in Pompidou was emerging. From that moment on, it seemed that De Gaulle decided to get rid of him at the earliest opportunity."
Although relations between the two men started deteriorating from 1965 onwards, they broke down definitively in May 1968 and Pompidou was replaced by Maurice Couve de Murville. Nevertheless, the two men continued to share the same views on presidential power. When Pompidou announced his candidacy for the 1969 presidential elections, he received tremendous support from the Gaullist political class, a sign that he had not steered away from the Gaullist legacy. (Only a few left-wing Gaullists expressed their disagreement).

Pompidou made Vedel's concept of the "absolute presidency" a cornerstone of French democracy.

Let us hazard a guess here: by affirming the predominance of the president's power, thus remaining aligned with De Gaulle's vision, Pompidou made Vedel's concept of the "absolute presidency" a cornerstone of French democracy. In a way, the Pompidou/De Gaulle duo "condemned" all future prime ministers to the shadow of a "super president" who is reluctant to share power. In addition, their relationships inexorably lead to a breakup, if the prime minister dares to consider taking over the president’s post one day.

In her paper Les poisons et délices de la Cinquième République, (French) Delphine Dulong accurately describes this "dyarchy problem". She recalls that "conflicts with the president seem difficult to avoid insofar as the problem is less a matter of personalities than it is structural". President Pompidou himself provides a case in point. When his prime minister, Jacques Chaban Delmas, held a speech on his famous "new society" in the National Assembly without obtaining the President's approval, the latter did not forgive him. The list of antagonistic relationships that followed is long: Giscard and Chirac (1974-1976), Mitterrand and Rocard (1988-1991), Sarkozy and Fillon (2007-2012: note that the duration of this tandem is in no way an indication of friendship). There have certainly also been genuine, friendly political companionships. On the left, for instance, we can think of the François Mitterrand/Pierre Mauroy duo, the architects of the 1981 socialist victory in the presidential elections. On the right, recall the tandem formed by President Jacques Chirac and Alain Juppé, which famously ended abruptly. However, neither Mauroy nor Juppé were really considered successors to their president.
Finally, there have also been "forced" duos - three since 1958, to be precise. These are partnerships imposed by voters through the legislative elections that follow the presidential elections. France's legislative elections are conflictual by design; a way for voters to restrict the newly elected president’s power. The outcomes can be unexpected, to say the least. Consider, for instance, the unlikely pairing of President François Mitterrand and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. The relationship between the two men was volatile from 1986 to 1988, but took a decisive turn in 1994 when Mitterrand, at the end of his second term, decided to support his former prime minister against the then-sitting common enemy, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.
France is entering a new political era, one with a relative majority in the National Assembly. It could initiate a process to "rebalance" the country. Still, there is a long way to go: only ambitious institutional reform can put France’s ultra-presidentialism to an end. Many are happy to condemn the extent of the president’s power, but nobody has really dared to act on the issue. Before any major institutional overhaul can take place, we need to see the emergence of a true power-sharing culture. This change should begin in the political parties and extend all the way up to the presidency.

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