A new form of reality television may await the unsuspecting people of France - televised weekly cabinet meetings.
As politicians of left and right struggle to make contact with a disaffected electorate before next year's presidential elections, the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, has astonished colleagues and opponents by calling for the "doors and windows" to be thrown open on the aloof, French system of government.
All meetings of the cabinet, chaired each Wednesday by the President at the Elysée Palace, should be opened to the television cameras, M. Villepin suggested. To set the ball rolling, he said, he would invite the cameras into an "inter-ministerial meeting" - a kind of cabinet committee - on Europe in two weeks. The Prime Minister's proposal came as politicians of left and right wrestled indignantly with an even more terrifying proposal by the front-runner for the Socialist nomination in next spring's elections, Ségolène Royal.
Mme Royal's success has been based on a direct, and some say populist, appeal to voters anxieties and concerns. Last week, she called for the creation of "citizens' juries" to monitor the work of all elected politicians. The juries, she suggested, should be picked at random, like court juries, to interrogate national and local politicians on their record.
Her idea has been widely rubbished by left and right as unworkable and redolent of the priggish mob rule of citizens' committees during the French Revolution. Mme Royal, slipping in the polls but still overwhelming favourite to be chosen as the Socialist candidate next month, was booed by grass-roots members of her own party when she defended the "jury" idea in Paris on Thursday night.
She retorted that there was a "profound democratic crisis" in France because ordinary people no longer felt that politicians were on their side. It was "dangerous" for Socialists to "close their eyes" to this reality. They risked another "ballot box insurrection", such as the first round of the 2002 presidential election when the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, was squeezed out of the second-round run-off by the far right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Mme Royal enthusiastically supported the suggestion by the centre-right Prime Minister, M. Villepin, that cabinet meetings should be televised. M. Villepin did not return the favour. He rejected her jury idea as "something from a distant age".
Other politicians, of right and left, have dismissed the Prime Minister's proposal as "a descent into the absurd". The effect would be, they said, to turn cabinet meetings into press conferences in which there was no debate, only policy statements and self-congratulation. All real discussion within government would be shifted to private meetings, cabinet committees or "closed" parts of the cabinet agenda.
François Fillon, a former centre-right cabinet minister and no friend of M. Villepin, gave the idea an ironic cheer. The truth was, he said, if television cameras were invited they would show up cabinet government, French-style, as a mere "recording studio". "I spent seven years in cabinets, and whether under [the late Socialist president] François Mitterrand or Jacques Chirac, I never once saw a real debate."
With just over two weeks left before Socialist Party members choose their presidential candidate, Mme Royal's overpowering lead in the opinion polls is weakening. She was loudly booed by left-wing and traditionalist members of the party at the Paris rally and non-televised debate on Thursday night.
A survey published yesterday suggested that her support among Socialist voters had fallen 15 points in the past week, from 72 per cent to 57 per cent. She remains, however, far ahead of her rivals, Dominique Strauss Kahn (23 per cent) and Laurent Fabius (10 per cent).