Yesterday, the King of France returned to Versailles.
No, readers of the New Atlanticist did not miss out on the news of a second Bourbon restoration, but President Nicolas Sarkozy’s historic address to French legislators at the former seat of royal power sent a not-so-subtle message about who is in charge in Paris.
For the first time since 1875, the French chief of state spoke directly before the assembled members of the legislative branch. Until last year’s reform of the French Constitution, the President could only address Parliament through written notes. This long-standing rule limited the power of the presidency and protected a once-fragile republican form of government from manipulation by excessively talented orators.
By overturning this outdated but symbolic separation of powers, Sarkozy drew the ire of the left, who see in this new prerogative the strengthening of the already formidable constitutional powers of the French President. Sarkozy and his supporters counter that the previous restrictions had become out of date and that a French “State of the Union” style address would pose no harm to the country’s now stable republican system.
Nevertheless, symbols do matter a great deal in politics, and the imagery of Monday’s address worsened fears that the “hyperpresident,” as his opponents call him, seeks to trample on the legislative branch.
First, consider the symbolic choice of venue. The speech took place at the historic Chateau de Versailles, perhaps the world’s greatest monument to absolute power and egoism. The extravagant and historically charged location of the speech played poorly with those on the left who already mistrust Sarkozy’s intentions.
Second, by outlining his priorities for the second half of his term before the members of the National Assembly, the Senate, and his own government, Sarkozy encroached on the traditional territory of the prime minister. In the French system, the president outlines the vision for the country and represents the French state in foreign affairs, but the premier is charged with determining the country’s policies and legislation. The president is expected to play the role of statesman, leaving the bruising and partisan nature of politics to the PM. Sarkozy’s confrontational style and constant campaigning have challenged this traditional model. Although Sarkozy took pains in his address to avoid confrontational language and not delve too much into specifics, many on the left believe this speech to be most glaring example of the diminishment of the prime minister’s role to date.
So why did Sarkozy feel this speech worthy of the controversy it generated in the media and among the French political class? He used the historic occasion to mark the beginning of the second half of his first term in office and to articulate an ambitious agenda for political and economic reform.
Sarkozy is near the mid-point of his five-year term in office, and he and his political team are already beginning to think about positioning themselves for the 2012 elections. On Wednesday morning, Sarkozy will announce the reshuffling of his cabinet to create the best team to implement the government’s policies and keep the opposition off balance.
As Sarkozy and his government celebrate his historic speech and begin thinking about 2012, they must like what they see. The majority UMP party fared very well in the European elections, humiliating an already demoralized and disorganized Socialist Party. Moreover, surveys from June 19 show that if the first round of the Presidential elections were held today, Sarkozy would easily outpoll his top Socialist rivals, Segolene Royal (33% to 19%) and Martine Aubry (33% to 17%).
Of course, polls are often unreliable so far in advance of elections (just ask Hillary Clinton). And indeed, Sarkozy suffers from low approval ratings and is the target of frequent attacks from the left, the center, and even members of the Gaullist wing of his own UMP party. But for the moment, the opposition lacks any coherent leadership, in part thanks to Sarkozy’s clever policy of co-opting prominent members of the opposition into his own initiatives. Perhaps the most formidable potential rival to Sarkozy is Socialist economist Dominique Strauss-Kahn, currently serving as managing director of the IMF in Washington, thanks in part to Sarkozy’s support during the selection process.
For the moment, however, Sarkozy is firmly in charge in France. He governs not without opponents, but without serious opposition to stand in his way. Sarkozy’s greatest challenge now is to work with his newly selected government to successfully implement his ambitious and costly goals of renewing the French economy in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Jeff Lightfoot is assistant director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.