Mitterrand's deadly legacy

The damage done to France by its late president will not be easily mended, argues John Laughland
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The Independent Online
As world leaders gather for Francois Mitterrand's funeral, maybe we should be mourning the state of French politics instead. Two things stand out about the Mitterrand era: the commitment to European integration, and socialism. The two, intimately connected, have done lasting damage to France.

Mitterrand believed the political power of states was under threat from "economic power", by which he meant the globalisation of world financial markets. He thought this because he confused the sovereignty of the state with his own personal power as head of the executive. When constrained to change a policy - as in 1983, when hardline socialism was abandoned - he resented it as an unacceptable limitation by the markets of his otherwise unrestricted power. This hubristic belief was the prime motive behind his European policy: he was convinced that the economy could be better "controlled" by politicians in a large geopolitical ensemble than at national level.

Since 1958 the French presidency has been the most powerful - some would say dictatorial - executive office in the democratic world, enjoying sweeping powers over the government, legislature, judiciary and army. Such a constitution is democratic only if the president behaves unambiguously as the head of a coherent executive, legitimised by regular plebiscites and elections.

Mitterrand, by contrast, made it his hallmark to dismiss the prime minister and government whenever the policies he had initiated began to fail. He thereby institutionalised the questionable idea that the French prime minister is a "fuse" between the president and public opinion: whenever the tension mounts, the PM is sacked in order to shield the president from the shock. This constitutional theory is now as widely accepted in France as it is incompatible with the most basic principles of political accountability.

It was therefore inevitable that Mitterrand should envisage a Europe in which all power would be wielded executively, away from the tiresome scrutiny of legislatures or electorates. His plans for monetary union, which he co-authored with the Germans, proposed that power be divided between three equally unaccountable institutions: the Central Bank, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. Not content with discretionary power at national level, he wanted to transfer it to European level as well.

There is little chance that President Jacques Chirac will manage to reform such questionable constitutional practices, and "bring the French state closer to citizens" as he has promised to do. In his televised address on Monday, he singled out Mitterrand's commitment to a strong Europe and his "reinforcement of the constitution" as his predecessor's major achievements.

Indeed, Chirac has already effected a Mitterrand-style U-turn by announcing, on 26 October, the adoption of all the policies he had spent the springtime presidential campaign attacking. Rumours are rife in Paris that he will sack Alain Juppe, the prime minister, in Mitterrand-like fashion before the year is out.

Although he denounced the remoteness and arrogance of France's elites in the spring, his government and he himself are as technocratic as any of their predecessors and are resented as such by most of the population.

Meanwhile, the theory is widely held that the role of the state should be to protect people from the effects of the free market. This month's edition of Le Monde Diplomatique contains some 20 articles hysterically denouncing free trade under the general title, "France's great revolt against liberal Europe". Economic liberalism is regularly attacked as "totalitarian", "dictatorial" and so on.

At December's European summit in Madrid, Chirac nourished such fantasies by affirming that Europe as a whole was winning an important victory against liberalism. This puts him well to the left of new Labour.

However, this attitude presupposes the continued predominance of executive power - the "big state" that Chirac said he wanted on New Year's Day - over the upholding of justice and the rule of law. It also presupposes the continued peddling of "Europe" as a universal panacea. The blank cheque signed by French citizens to Mr Mitterrand is evidently still valid, and will be for seven more years.

The writer is a former lecturer at the Institute of Political Science in Paris and author of 'The Death of Politics: France under Mitterrand'.