Vive la republique! Et vive le roi!

France is showing tendencies towards absolutist monarchy, which could have some curious consequences
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The Independent Online
We get France wrong. We have long nourished the illusion that while Britain is a decayed monarchy, the French are republican. We are old; they are modern. In fact, as the international furore over nuclear testing should remind us, this is higgledy-piggledy. For all our failures, we are more republican than them. France is nearer an absolute monarchy than any other European country. Politically, it is no longer modern at all.

Some British Conservatives admire France for this very reason; if you are turned on by authority, central control, and robust, even faintly paranoid nationalism, the Fifth Republic has a lot to be admired.

The Mururoa atoll testing is a good example of the result. It is possible to sympathise (a bit) with the French position - British nuclear weapons depend upon sophisticated American testing technology to which the French are denied access. But the crass timing, and the bull-headed determination to go ahead even at the cost of raising uncomfortable issues such as French colonial policy, demonstrate what happens when you have a nationalistic and heavily centralised leadership, surrounded by no political checks other than the gilt mirrors of its own self-importance.

The inheritance of Louis XIV is in many ways deeper than that of the Revolution. France enjoys the symbolism and language of republicanism, but the reality is that it is ruled by a monarch, with powers which seem absolutist even by British standards; it's just that the monarch is elected.

(In Britain, by contrast, although it isn't quite the case, as Walter Bagehot suggested during the 1860s, that ''a republic has insinuated itself within the folds of a monarchy'', it is possible to imagine that following a period of further reformism, we will arrive at this de facto British republicanism.)

This may seem a large claim to hang on a few promised nuclear tests. But this summer has brought more evidence than Mururoa. When 887 French parliamentarians gathered in the sun at King Louis's Versailles last week and rubber-stamped President Chirac's proposals further to increase his power, everyone involved was acting in a thoroughly traditional Fifth- Republican way.

Through most of its history, opposition leaders have denounced France's rulers for taking on dictator-like powers, and then done exactly the same when they were elected. Francois Mitterrand was a particularly ripe example. He wrote a book in 1964 attacking the undemocratic growth of presidential powers, which he described as a permanent coup d'etat. However, during his time, he was among the worst presidential offenders. He got through an extraordinary number of prime ministers, enlarged his own competence, took almost no notice of the parliament, and cheerfully undermined the government when it was won by the right. His circle of admirers, acolytes and memorialists was truly court-like.

One of the Gaullist leaders who suffered from this constitutional despotism was Jacques Chirac - he recently described it as Mitterrand's ''drift to monarchy''. Now it is Chirac's turn and instead of trying to rebalance the constitution, he charges straight in the same direction, taking powers for referendums on social, political and economic issues. This is supposed to combat the growth of lobby groups, but its real impact is to allow President Chirac to bypass the parliament entirely on key domestic issues if it falls into hostile hands.

The parliament is graciously allowed to debate the wording of referendums, but not to vote on them. The MPs, again acting true to form, obliged Chirac by giving him everything he asked for.

Referendums are useful tools, but it is clear that Chirac, like Mitterrand, believes he is in some sort of mystical communion with the French people, a relationship too pure and ideal to be sullied by grubby upstart politicians at the national parliament. Absolute monarchs have always thought this way. The trouble is that, judging by his fast-falling poll ratings, the French people don't seem to be mystically communing with the President.

France's elective monarchy has given the country a more traditional, more stable, richer and self-confident post-war society than we have enjoyed. It has been part of the French atmosphere which draws so many Britons (including me) to love the place and holiday there. Given the savage end of the more parliamentarian Third Republic and the post-war mayhem, it is perhaps unsurprising that there seems to be no great parliamentarian nostalgia in France.

But the centralism and lack of separation of powers is starting to look like a problem, above all because of the way it conflicts with the deeper European integration to which France is so deeply committed.

Take the nuclear tests again. Gaullists have presented the reaction as ''an anti-French plot'', which French dignity and power insists must be repulsed. Yet almost at once, it was clear that they did not feel entirely comfortable representing this as a purely French national question. They Europeanised it. Philippe Seguin, the parliamentary speaker and a key Chirac supporter, said last week that ''there are still a lot of people who fear Europe's strategic independence''.

At first glance, this suggests that the French nuclear forces are to be put, one day, at the service of European Union. The Germans have been told as much. But the implication that, for instance, Britain, Portugal, Denmark and Ireland should have a vote in the use of French nuclear bombs is clearly an absurdity. Unless Europe and France are considered to be the same thing, true Gaullism and true Europeanism are eventually incompatible.

The same clash is evident in the agonised debate about whether France should really abolish her frontier controls with other ''Schengen'' countries, which has been given an added sharpness by the recent Paris Metro bomb.

Then there is the question of European institutions. Parisian hostility to the Strasbourg parliament has been long and thus far pretty unrelenting. Yet a ''deeper'' Union is inconceivable without a stronger European Parliament. It will not be possible, in the end, to combine the old-fashioned centralism of the Fifth Republic with the pluralism and separated powers of a modern and democratic EU.

This all carries mixed and fascinating messages for us. The same out- of-date nationalism currently causing France such pain and unpopularity in the southern hemisphere is succour to British anti-Europeans and nationalists closer to home. As the hard choices for Chirac emerge, on borders, institutions, defence and perhaps the franc, too, many British Tories will be watching to see which way he jumps.

If he goes ''their'' way, we may yet see Jacques Chirac emerge as something of a British Tory hero, rather as Jacques Delors became a hero of the British trade union movement in the late Eighties. Once French nationalists and British nationalists were destined to be enemies; now they are obliged to be friends.

For the left, though, it offers an equally tantalising prospect. If the political reform programme to which Labour and the Liberal Democrats are committed is put into effect, then by the end of the century it may be Britain, not France, which looks like the modern model for European statehood, the real republic. What would that early Europeanist Napoleon Bonaparte have said about that?