From the Spring 2012 Speaking in Tongues issue
By David A. Andelman
PARIS—We are eight at a long, leisurely lunch in the charming 14th arrondissement apartment just off the Place Denfert-Rocherot. Our host is a Le Monde journalist whose long career has taken him from Cambodia in the last days of the Indochina wars and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge to John Major’s London and to Washington, straddling Clinton and Bush. The afternoon begins with a fabulous hard yellow cheese and a rich white wine from Catalonia down by the Pyrenees separating France from Spain where our hosts have their country cabin. The dishes are passed around, the wine glasses filled and refilled, the main course, a succulent cassoulet de canard and all the trimmings. But the centerpiece, as is the case these days when any two or more Europeans gather, is the Presidentielles—the national elections for the first new President de la Republique in five years. The first round will be held in just 11 weeks. This watershed vote comes amidst another downward spiral in a French economy already battered by the three-year global recession. These two all but inseparable subjects, fused into a complexity only the French can master, continue to mesmerize this nation that, even in the best of times, never takes its politics in stride.
At the table is an eclectic mix of journalists, writers, diplomats, and translators—a former chief editor of one of the two great French business dailies, La Tribune, which published its dernier numéro (last issue) the day we boarded our plane to Paris five days earlier; her husband, a senior French diplomat newly returned from a diplomatic post at the Holy See; a distinguished Italian journalist who has spent much of his life in France and is the author of numerous books holding up an amusing and irreverent mirror to the foibles of his adopted nation; and his wife, an Argentine translator of volumes of Israeli poetry into Spanish. So the paramount question—will it be the right-wing incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, the bland, but quite brilliant Socialist, who will manage to eke out the leading pluralities in the first round and then duke it out in a two-way finale two weeks hence? Or will there be a spoiler—the radical right-wing Marine Le Pen, daughter of the founder of the Front National, or François Bayrou, the centrist leader of MoDem (Mouvement Democrate) and darling of many political intellectuals, whose electoral prospects seem to extend little further than an annoying horsefly in a four-person derby.
“I don’t at all exclude that people at the moment they vote will tire of Hollande, be bored by him,” says the former Tribune editor. “Apparently he is quite droll in private, but that does not translate, helas, to his public discourse. Still, I don’t know how a president can be re-elected if unemployment continues to rise here in France, as it does. It is not imaginable.”
“And the price of petrol rises as well,” the Italian cuts in. “So you have more and more unemployed facing higher and higher petrol prices.”
There is a general consensus that Sarkozy has indeed done little to address these problems at home, while succeeding in arriving at a condominium with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one newspaper headline describing the pair as strolling “hand-in-hand.”
“Nowhere have there been more bills that have passed Parliament that will never be implemented,” snorts our host, who has covered legislative processes in both Britain and America. “If Sarkozy is reelected, it is still not sure he will implement them, and if he is defeated, they will be repealed. In France you have between a third and two-thirds of the bills that are never implemented. So you have, since January 3 of this year, a rebate on gas and electricity for poor households. But the implementation regulations haven’t been finalized. Voters want a benign monarch and not a clown.” Not much different, of course, from the American system—which has caused untold consternation in the United States—where an item may be approved by Congress in a budget measure, but won’t be funded unless it appears in the next appropriations bill.
Many of Sarkozy’s landmark initiatives have fallen flat. Mass demonstrations met his move to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60. And earlier in his presidency, his move to increase employment by imposing a 35-hour work week led to an initial burst of hiring but didn’t solve the unemployment problems in some industries.
“For the French newspapers, the 35 hour week was the beginning of the end,” says the Tribune editor. “It destroyed an already very fragile industry.” Newspapers were already forced to give the mandated eight weeks annual vacation. They could not afford overtime as well. Nor could more beat reporters be trained quickly and effectively. Indeed, few newspapers can be published by journalists working just seven hours a day. Instead, vast comp time began to accumulate, which must be entered as a cash debit on balance sheets. “When I left, I had 12.5 weeks of vacation accrued,” the editor smiled ruefully. “In the auto industry, you might be able to produce more cars to cover this, but you can’t produce more newspapers.” A number have already failed and still more are on life support. Which probably doesn’t trouble Sarkozy too much since he has not received much of a break from many journalists.
But he’s not the only candidate with complications in this nation that is riven, more than any time in decades, by deep partisan divides. The day after our lunch, the front-page banner headline in the Journal de Dimanche, which since its creation in 1948 has remained continuously the only Sunday newspaper in a nation that still observes the day of rest with religious ferocity, blares “If She Weren’t There … Sarkozy 33%, Hollande 33%.” The skeptical face of a blonde Marine LePen stares up with her deep blue eyes at the headline, while wearing an enigmatic smile. Remove Marine from the equation and you have a statistical draw according to a poll by IFOP, the most reputable polling organization in France. There are just so many forces this year that want desperately to remove LePen from the equation. Indeed, even France’s arcane electoral system is conspiring against her.
In France, to get on the ballot requires an endorsement from at least 500 French mayors—a rule that dates back to the 1960s when the French first began a single nationwide election for their president and the goal was to prevent a tsunami of small-party candidates from overwhelming the lists. The last time around, in 2007, Marine’s father, Jean-Marie, easily passed that barrier. Michel Silly, mayor of Château-Bréhain in the Moselle valley, “a tiny community with 75 souls,” as Le Monde put it, who endorsed her father in 2007 said he did so because back then he was polling at least 15 percent and his Front National seemed like a “real party.” But, though the polls suggest the LePen daughter might even hit 20 percent this time, Mayor Silly isn’t rushing forward with his signing pen. Still, it would seem that with 36,569 “communes” in France (the smallest has a population of just one citizen), and each village in theory with a mayor, it wouldn’t be so hard to assemble the required number. And quite possibly, she shall. Meanwhile, she continues to crisscross the country declaiming against errors committed by the left and the right—not to mention an electoral system that seems ripe for rigging.
FLAILING IN FRANCE
At one time, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was seen as the quite inevitable Socialist successor to President François Mitterrand, the nation’s last Socialist President in the 1980s and early 1990s (a two-term 14-year stretch that has since been shortened to two five year mandates). Now, in the wake of his infamous sexcapade in New York’s Sofitel last year, a months-long judicial proceeding and his removal from contention as a challenger to Sarkozy he has become, even in the most intellectual circles, the butt of marginally tasteless jokes. “So Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Pope have dinner,” begins the Italian journo. “Then he drives the Pope home, but en route, his Porsche goes off the road and both die. They arrive late at night at the Pearly Gates, and a very tired St. Peter sends Strauss-Kahn to heaven and the Pope in the opposite direction. In the morning, realizing his error, he sets it all straight. The Pope and Strauss-Kahn meet on the stairway. ‘Ah, at last I shall be able to meet the Virgin Mary,’ beams the Pope. Strauss-Kahn smiles thinly. ‘Too late.’”
Indeed, all sides seem to be flailing. Libération, the great French center-left tabloid, devotes its entire front page to the figure of a dolorous Sarkozy adjusting his necktie as he prepares to appear on national television. Above is a simple headline: “Un Président perdu” (a lost President), followed by a brief description: “Trailing in the polls, Sarkozy tried last night to regain control but announced only some limited measures like a rise in the VAT. Without appearing even to have convinced himself.” Still, even his principal opponent, Hollande, has come up with no exciting plan to reverse the exploding unemployment and growth that the Banque de France projects at zero or worse for the first quarter of this year. Indeed, Hollande’s few proposals—separating retail and investment banking, raising the tax on banks to 40 percent (from 34 percent) and taxing all financial transactions (which British Prime Minister David Cameron promptly endorsed with an open invitation for all French banking institutions to decamp to England)—seem to have been met with a yawn from the electorate and a frisson of fear from the business community.
Before we break up, our host brings out a reporters’ notebook and a pen and we go around the table predicting the outcome of the first and second rounds of the presidential elections. In the first round, two pick “Sarko” finishing in first place, while four place Hollande on top, though winding up 1-2 sends both to a second round faceoff. All but one guest places LePen in third spot, with two putting her at 21 percent of the vote, a whisker behind Hollande. In the deciding second “tour,” two have Sarkozy winning outright, while four pick Hollande, with our Italian guest giving him a landslide margin of 57 to 43 percent of the vote.
France is only the leading edge of an all but unprecedented single-year tidal wave of elections sweeping Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals and around the world, at a time of monumental challenges and turmoil. Some 82 national elections will be held this year (including four in France—two rounds each for President and National Assembly). Some 24 nations will elect presidents.
Complicating this global voting turmoil is the kaleidoscope of different electoral systems, laws, and constitutions—some dating back decades, others products of more upheaval. Millions are still held hostage to their own peculiar devices that make France and its 36,569 mayors look positively rational. Even within a Europe with, at least cosmetically a “common” currency, “common” market, and a host of other shared commonalities, there is a whole host of disparate ways of electing officers of the state. France has a president, who is nominally the single most powerful individual in the nation. But hypothetically, the French could elect a Socialist president on May 6, then have second thoughts six weeks later and on June 17 send a center-right majority to the National Assembly. Unlikely. But more likely is the possibility that the president could dissolve parliament and call for new elections that might return to power an opposition parliament and prime minister, selected by the National Assembly. The French call it “cohabitation,” and back in 1986, I witnessed first-hand how well that worked when Socialist President Mitterrand had his mandate whisked out from under him and the center-right politico Jacques Chirac assumed power as prime minister—only to find himself in the same soup à l’oignon a decade later when, as president himself, he was forced to appoint Socialist Lionel Jospin as his prime minister or head of government. In both cases, the “gel” or freeze was every bit as deep, if not deeper, than the position Barack Obama found himself since January 2011 when a Tea Party Congress arrived in Washington. Few substantive measures get through. The wheels of government grind to a halt. The permanent bureaucracy rules the roost. Still, no matter who inhabits Matignon (the prime minister’s residence), as long as he’s president, Sarkozy, as head of state, negotiates, not with fellow European heads of state, but with heads of government in Germany and Italy where the chancellor and prime minister call the shots.
Our luncheon talk then turns to Italy, which is itself in the midst of a brutal electoral stalemate, not to mention economic stagnation. Our Italian friend points out an electoral anomaly in his country. It’s a first-through-the-gate parliamentary system. Whichever party wins the largest plurality in the elections (Italians vote for a party list, not individual candidates) automatically gets an absolute majority of seats in Parliament. It is a statute instituted by Il Duce Benito Mussolini, the Hitler-era dictator, to make certain he had a thoroughly compliant parliament. Playboy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi only tweaked the system a half century later. This same parliament names the figurehead president, nominally “guardian of the constitution,” but who plays only the most marginal role in any real crisis like Italy’s potential inability repay the €2.5 trillion ($3.3 trillion) or so of loans it’s taken out to sustain its tottering economy and guarantee a laid-back olive-oil lifestyle.
In Germany, Chancellor Merkel retains her not unquestioned but certainly potent, mandate by virtue of her ability to hold together an at times fractious coalition within the Bundestag. There were some fears last August that Merkel had actually lost her functional majority when 23 coalition members, including 12 of the 44 members of the powerful Bavarian Christian Socialists threatened to vote against her latest plan to impose fiscal discipline on Europe. She did come out on top, much to the relief of Sarkozy and most Western financiers.
The one true imponderable, among the sophisticated and worldly individuals surrounding our Paris luncheon table, is the American system. Few understand how it can possibly function the way it does and how it manages somehow to sustain the United States as a leading world power. The sad fact is that America is no longer the democratic model to which much of the world turns when it comes to democracy.
MUNICH TO MOLDOVA
A pair of political commentators from Moldova—each with quite diametrically opposed views of his own nation’s electoral system—drops by World Policy Journal offices in early February. “We don’t understand your electoral process at all,” says one of the visitors, whose own nation is poised on the brink of its fourth election in as many years and which continues to be ruled by an “interim president.” An attempt to explain the process of primaries, multiple divisions within existing parties led by the Tea Party caucus, followed by a fraught general election, not to mention the risk of stalemate should a viable third-party candidate enter the lists and the entire stewpot thrown into the House of Representatives or the Supreme Court to decide it all, was met with glassy-eyed disbelief.
And this from Moldova—a nation that boasts in its western region a communist party that’s anti-Russian and in the east, in the potentially breakaway territory of Trans-Dniester, a pro-Russian party that’s anti-communist. Still, Moldova, or at least the western half of the nation, harbors earnest thoughts of joining the European Union, which has failed to demand the same form of political or electoral conformity that it does economic and fiscal harmony for its wannabee communicants. Our two visitors nearly come to blows over the question of which outside power—the EU, the IMF, or Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been most helpful in the fiscal crisis that grips this tiny nation of 3.6 million, one of its main sources of pride being the fact that Israeli Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman, was born in the Moldavian capital, Chisinau.
(Full disclosure—your faithful commentator, too, traces his roots through his paternal grandparents, to the village of Edinets which our visitors observe is now a city of some 25,000 souls, indeed the nation’s 16th largest urban area.) About all they can agree on is the world will wake up on March 5 to find Putin once again in charge—and without the messy distraction of a second round runoff. In other words, by hook or by crook, he’ll eke out an absolute majority.
Clearly, both of these cases—Russia and Moldova—diverge far from the American constitutional system. Still, our visitors just shake their heads over this document that’s approaching its 225th anniversary. Indeed, a number of nations that are moving toward democracy are equally looking elsewhere for inspiration.
CANADA: PARAMOUNT MODEL
So whose model is supreme these days? “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has influenced constitution-making in other countries,” say David S. Law of the law school and political science department at Washington University in St. Louis and Mila Versteeg of the University of Virginia School of Law. Canada has managed to build an influence that “is neither uniform nor global in scope …but instead reflects an evolutionary path shared primarily by other common law countries.” At the same time, they point out in a detailed 86-page research paper, “the United States may be losing its influence over constitutionalism in other countries because it is increasingly out of sync with an evolving global consensus on issues of human rights.” They conclude “that the U.S. Constitution is increasingly far from the global mainstream.”
The global mainstream is quite simply shifting away from America.
Law and Versteeg suggest several alternative templates—Germany, whose Basic Law was created by its Allied conquerors 1949, then brushed up after the reunification of West and East Germany in 1990; South Africa, whose current constitution was drafted by the first post-apartheid parliament in 1994; and India, whose constitution was created in 1949 after the British partitioned India and Pakistan, then packed up, leaving the nations on their own as independent states. While all three—Germany, South Africa, and India—the researchers say, have been influential, “we uncover no patterns that would suggest widespread constitutional emulation of Germany, South Africa, or India.” Instead, they focus on Canada, whose 1982 “Charter of Rights and Freedoms has influenced constitution-making in other countries … [reflecting] an evolutionary path shared primarily by other common law countries.”
Moreover, Canada’s parliamentary system is far more congruent with the electoral experiences, not to say inclinations, of most of the countries seeking a new constitutional model. In an era when a host of nations—particularly across the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring—are closely examining their entire electoral structure, the Canadian constitution is a document of potentially seminal importance. “Constitutional drafters rarely invent new forms of political organization or discover new rights from whole cloth but instead lean heavily upon foreign examples for inspiration,” say Law and Versteeg. They single out Eastern Europe and southern Africa, when in the 1980s, democratic-style governments began to emerge from the rubble of the Soviet empire and South Africa moved toward the post-apartheid era.
Much of this interest in Canada’s charter is two-fold. First, there’s the nature of the document as a self-styled “charter of rights and freedom”—written in plain language and clear to the average citizen whose fundamental rights it guarantees. But more significant seems to be the nation’s bedrock image in much of the democratic world as laid-back, exuding goodwill, caring for the well being of its own people and others around the globe—a dramatic contrast to the United States, all too often seen as a global bully or at least acting with uncalled for hubris. The researchers found that “all other things being equal, the more democratic that a particular country happens to be, the more that its constitution will resemble that of Canada. A country’s level of democracy does not, by contrast, correlate with greater constitutional similarity to the United States.”
Some of the central provisions of the American constitution, in fact, are anathema to a number of the newly emergent democracies. The sharp division between church and state enshrined in the American document is unlikely to resonate with any great strength in nations like Egypt and its politically dominant Muslim Brotherhood, or even Tunisia with the importance of Islam there. At the same time, the unsettling electoral confusion of many West European nations is unlikely to provide any real role model for other countries, whether they are emerging from the detritus of old empires like the Soviet Union or the mastery of dictatorships—Southern Sudan among others. An ostensibly united Europe, with its bureaucratic continent-wide central authority and its divergent component states, each with electoral systems that often diverge sharply from each other, is a somewhat unlikely prototype. Belgium, after all, still can’t decide whether it’s a single nation, or two—taking 541 days, perhaps a global record, before Parliament, with its 12 political parties, was able to form a new government last December.
One takeaway from the report suggests that cheerleading for the Canadian over the U.S. constitution is the very nature of the American document. Drafted 225 years ago, intended to last for perhaps a generation or two, it has long outlived its usefulness or effectiveness. I’d suggest, however, that the answer lies far deeper in the American soul—the psyche of a nation that has grown from a small collection of 13 colonies to a dominant global power. The simple, straightforward Canadian model of statehood, of its relationship with nations of every sort, is by far the preferred paradigm for most newly minted democracies with an ability to choose.
So by the end of this year, what are we likely to see? The more established democracies, Mexico in July and South Korea in December; the proto-democracies that pay at least lip service to the concept, Russia in March, Egypt (somewhat tentatively) in April, and Venezuela in October; and a host of the less developed, but no less anticipatory members of the fraternity from Serbia and Slovenia to Senegal and Sierra Leone, will all have chosen new leaders, setting their course for the coming years. Sadly, there are also sham elections this year. Iranians are going to the polls to elect their new parliament in March. This will be a prelude to the high-stakes contest in June of next year for the presidency, with at least two conservative factions battling for supremacy—the right to lead a nation that, with the ayatollahs still firmly in charge no matter what the outcome, has little real choice over how its future may unfold.
Some of these nations will find their procedures attentively, even aggressively monitored by international specialists or their own people. As for the West—the cradle of democracy and constitutionalism—we should be true models, cheering their efforts, rewarding success with approbation, but ultimately making certain that each is empowered to choose its own course as responsibly and freely as possible.
David A. Andelman is the editor of World Policy Journal.
[Illustration: Damien Glez]