Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 December 2004
Issue No. 720
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

From party of the government to government of the party

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed discusses the validity of "constitutional" coups

Although the title of this article borrows the terminology of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), the article itself is not about Egypt but about France, which has recently witnessed what can be described as a "constitutional", or "democratic", coup. Unlike the NDP, France's ruling conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is a young party that was formed as a coalition of centre-Right forces following the shocking defeat of Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in the 2002 presidential election by the extreme Right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen. The election result, which revealed that Le Pen's racist Fascist-oriented party was the second most powerful in the country, after the Gaullists led by Chirac and before the Socialists led by Jospin, served as a wake-up call that galvanised the French political establishment.

It also galvanised the French electorate, whose apathy in the first round was largely responsible for Le Pen's political triumph. As it became clear that the most intense struggle in France was no longer the traditional confrontation between Right and Left but between Right and far Right, the entire spectrum of French parties, from the traditional Right to the Left in all its diversity, put their differences aside and closed ranks in the face of the new challenge. Many voted for Chirac in the second round, not because they believed in him or in his principles and/or policies, but because they hated Le Pen and what he stood for. Supporting France's traditional Right was a way of isolating the extreme Right and, at the same time, of marginalising the Left in all its forms, including the moderate Left.

In the context of this artificial strengthening of the Right in France to avoid a victory of the far Right, Nicolas Sarkozy, a charismatic, ambitious and flamboyant French politician of Hungarian origin, seized the opportunity to put himself forward as a youthful alternative to Chirac. Consecrated as the new leader of the UMP at a lavish inauguration ten days ago, Sarkozy is already a serious rival for the incumbent president. Accused by the latter of being "too Atlanticist, too much an advocate of Anglo-American style economics", Sarkozy bases his call for a national project on a number of ideological catch words like "respect", "work", "success" and "fatherland". On the issue of work, he has criticised the Left for its campaign to reduce weekly working hours to 35, saying that this is incompatible with its stated reverence for work and could end up making equality between citizens purely formal.

US Defense-Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described Chirac's stand on the Iraq war as representative of "Old Europe". It is a view shared by some of the more pragmatic members of Chirac's own party, including Sarkozy, who see the visceral Gaullist hostility to America's leadership of the new world order as unrealistic and counterproductive.

A young man in a hurry, Sarkozy, who at 49 is 23 years younger than Chirac, makes no secret of his presidential ambitions. He has proved his worth over the last two and a half years, first as interior minister then as finance minister, arguably the toughest posts in any government. Elected as leader of the UMP by a landslide 85 per cent of the vote, Sarkozy has moved a giant step closer to his goal.

Although Sarkozy is undoubtedly the most prominent politician in France today, his investiture as head of the UMP was attended by only two members of the cabinet, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin. President Chirac did not attend but sent his wife, Bernadette, in his place.

No longer just a cabinet minister who applies government policies, Sarkozy is now in a position to determine the policies of France's ruling party and hence of France itself. He is already setting conditions for his support of the government, introducing an entirely new equation to the political scene in France. By making the party an authority transcending the government, he has turned the balance of political power on its head, reversing the structure of the regime from the "party of the government" to the "government of the party".

The state of affairs is bound to mark the two years remaining until the 2007 presidential and legislative elections with acute confrontations within the ranks of the French Right, including the ruling team itself. Chirac will most likely present himself for a third term and Sarkozy will certainly try to snatch the presidency from him. In fact, he is already campaigning for the post. In his address to the UMP conference celebrating his investiture, the new party leader attacked the status quo and called for change, asserting that "France doesn't fear change, it is waiting for it". And, in a polite but barbed exchange with the prime minister, Sarkozy tried to assert the party's status as senior partner in the party- government partnership, telling Raffarin: "We will support you, because you will listen to us!" Raffarin's response was no less assertive: "The government has to listen. But it is ultimately the government that decides." Nobody can predict the outcome of the confrontations. Sarkozy must convince the French people of his worth, not only segments of the French Right.

Actually, infighting between the leaders of the French Right has always been very energy- consuming: between Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Chirac, then between Chirac and his competitors. The election of Sarkozy marks a new stage in this competition and presages a rocky road ahead. The presidential aspirant dismisses Chirac's chances of winning a third term in office, saying that he "has neither the age (72), nor the history that entitles him to renew his presidency".

The party/government tug-of-war is not unique to France but is a fairly common feature in many contemporary political systems. Take the case of Marwan Barghouti, who has decided to present himself as a candidate in the 9 January Palestinian elections. Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail on terrorist charges declared his candidacy in defiance of the decision by Fatah, of which he is a leading member, to nominate Abu Mazen as its candidate. It is not clear whether Barghouti is merely trying to highlight his credentials or is out to challenge the PLO leadership. Whatever his motives, Barghouti's decision to run for president has split Fatah and shaken the Palestinian political establishment. It could also have unforeseen and undesirable consequences. For example, Sharon might be tempted to release Barghouti in the aim of deepening contradictions within Palestinian ranks. Like his Gaza disengagement plan, which was certainly not motivated by a desire to liberate occupied Arab territory but was designed to serve Israel's security interests, so too releasing Barghouti at this critical juncture could seriously undermine Palestinian hopes for a smooth transition of power.

Barghouti placed himself on a collision course with the Palestinian leadership to which he has always belonged, thus acquiring a status with the Israelis that could convince them it would be more beneficial to release him than to keep him indefinitely in prison. Sarkozy too has placed himself in a confrontation with the Gaullist leadership to which he belongs, by trying to make the party, not the government, and not even the presidency, the epicentre of decision-making.

The former Socialist prime minister, Laurent Fabius, tried to adopt an attitude similar to that of Sarkozy, but on the Left, by mobilising a movement in the Socialist Party that would vote against the European constitution. But Fabius failed and the Socialist Congress voted in favour of the constitution, thus making it adopt a stand on a crucial political matter similar to that of the French Right, because of the lack of a Socialist leader able to restore to the Left-Right confrontation its traditional primacy.

These are contemporary forms of constitutional coups that occur within the framework of what is accepted as democratic practices. A coup is not necessarily the opposite of democracy. And democracy does not necessarily exclude the possibility of coups. Lessons should be drawn from such aberrations to avoid the occurrence of undesirable developments.

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