Counter Powers: Democracy in Action

French Flag. Photo: Sylvain Naudin

French Flag.
Photo: Sylvain Naudin

Simply speaking, it was an exciting week in French politics. In less than seven days, the majority didn’t qualify for the second round of a by-election, the Budget Minister was forced to resign, and a motion of no confidence, rejected by the Parliament and the former President of the Republic, was put under formal investigation to examine 2007 campaign financing. What is the common point behind these events? All encouraged the action of an essential part of a democracy: counter-powers.

It began on Sunday, March 17, when the Socialist party severely lost the first round of the by-election in the departement of Oise, one hour north of Paris. The election was held after the Constitutional Council judged the June 2012 vote to be invalid. Among the three main candidates, the representative of the Parti Socialiste (PS) majority was unable to qualify for the second round of the by-election after gaining only 21 % of the votes. The second round will see the UMP and the FN candidates go head-to-head on Sunday, March 24.

Then, on Wednesday, March 20, the leader of the UMP opposition Jean-François Copé asked Parliament for a motion of no confidence in the current PS leadership. In his speech preceding the vote, he denounced the policy of the Government that, according to him, is driving the country right into the wall. In the Prime Minister’s counter-argument, Jean-Marc Ayrault re-affirmed the goals of the Government: more growth and more social justice. Without suspense, the motion was rejected by the Parliament, which is under the control of a PS majority.

The second affair of the week occurred on Tuesday, March 19. The Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac withdrew from office. He promptly left his place as Budget Minister once boldly accused of holding a Swiss bank account in order to defraud the French tax services. Months of conflict between independent investigation newspaper, Mediapart, and the Budget Minister preceded Tuesday’s news. Mediapart disclosed the fraudulent activity to the public last year, which was then denied by Cahuzac. However, expert sources confirmed the voice of the Minister on a tape, claiming he was, indeed, in possession of a Swiss bank account. As of now, a preliminary inquiry has been opened, and the former minister will soon have to justify his actions of late.

Finally, the last event is personally the most shocking. On Thursday night, March 21, Judge Jean-Michel Gentil put the former President, Nicolas Sarkozy, under formal investigation for the abuse of the state of weakness for his 2007 encounters with L’Oreal’s main shareholder, Liliane Bettencourt. While the other events only created moderate upheaval in the French public, this decision was heavily criticized by the UMP, precipitating Henri Guaino’s accusation that Judge Gentil was a “disgrace to the profession”.

What do these particular occurrences tell us about the state of French democracy? First off, the counter-powers are indeed effective in France — the free press is able to investigate and hold the ministers accountable, and there is still justice for the people with judge-lead investigations. Ironically, Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to abolish the role of the judge investigator in favor of the prosecutors.

Yet, these democratic mainstays should never be taken for granted. In this regard, the conspiracy overtones surrounding the Sarkozy investigation are unsettling. Many figures of the party implied that the justice system was holding a grudge against the former President, and others directly accuse the Government of exploiting the court of justice to seek revenge against Sarkozy. These accusations coming from elected representatives show that the frontier between the traditional right and the extreme right is getting thinner each passing day. It appears that more and more elected officials are proponents of polarizing and rigid viewpoints.

This week also demonstrates the Government’s loss of favorable public opinion. The by-election in Oise reflects the population’s lack of trust in the Government. There is a pervasive impression that the Government doesn’t have direction, and the contradictory actions among the Ministers along with the various concessions made by the government to keep peace appear to confirm this belief. The evidence of internal disagreements among ministers was exemplified with the debate of the 75% tax. The Council of State, the highest administrative jurisdiction in France, estimated the 75 % tax for revenues over € 1 million would be declared unconstitutional. Rather, it advised the Government not to exceed 66 %.

The lesson we must learn from this week is simple. Counter-powers are the basis of our democracy, providing limitations in the process of government as well as promoting efficiency and accountability. Our leaders are not necessarily free to do what they want because the counter-powers ensure that if they infringe the law, the public will chastise them in consequence. Leaders are free to do what they want within reason.

The National Front paints the recent events with a cynical tone by declaring people under suspicious allegations, like Cahuzac and Sarkozy, to be “corrupted.” Instead, we should rejoice that our democracy is running smoothly and that our expectations promote a high standard for our politicians to match. Ideally, we should hope that everyone would be compelled to match these standards, as they aren’t only applicable to public figures.

Hugo Argenton is LJP’s French columnist. He lives in Lille, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.

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