What the Cabinet Shake-Up Reveals about the Flaws of the Fifth Republic

By Staff Political Cartoonist Justin Walker

By Staff Political Cartoonist Justin Walker

On Monday, August 25, the cabinet of Prime Minister Manuel Valls was dismissed and a new cabinet was formed the following day. Valls has been Prime Minister for less than six months. The cabinet dismissal occurred in reaction to the public opposition of Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg and other ministers to the economic policies of President François Hollande.

Although the cabinet dismissal was necessary in the short-term, the positive effects of a new cabinet are questionable, since this decision highlights a major political failure for all French politicians.

The Constitution of the 5th Republic was designed by General Charles de Gaulle to give a strong president a strong majority. Indeed, the French system has a weaker parliament as well as fewer checks and balances than the United States. A recent switch from a seven-year to a five-year presidential term has made it extremely unlikely that a president will have to work with an opposing-party majority in the Assemblée Nationale. Since legislative elections are only a month after the presidential ones, there is little chance that the French will change their mind so quickly and vote for a different political party. While mid-term elections represent a real threat to an American president, the fear of having an opposing party in parliament is a thing of the past for a French president.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy carried the logic of this Constitution to its extreme. The French were first impressed, then repelled, by Sarkozy’s “hyper-presidential” style, making decisions with a strong hand and an authoritarian tone. Hollande was elected out of France’s repugnance for this excess, pledging to be a “normal” President. After 2 years, Hollande is now forced to accept the presidential stature that is the very fabric of the 5th Republic by exercising his power to ask his own cabinet to resign, but the stature remains too large for his shoulders, and the French political model is running out of breath.

A new change of cabinet less than 6 months after the previous one will only remind the French how the institutions of their Republic have been failing to make changes in their society. The unilateral focus on the President and the obedience of his political majority only strengthen the disinterest of the French people in their future as a nation.

How can the French process the fact that a group of Parti Socialiste representatives only threatened to vote against his “Pact of Responsibility,” a series of massive tax cuts for French employers in exchange for the promise of hiring more, only to back off later? They cannot be blind to the fact their representatives are only faking opposition for the sake of conflict. Neither can they see in a switch of ministers the possibility for real change.

The 5th Republic was meant to avoid the constant changes that occurred in previous Republics. It was designed to give one of the two major parties a strong majority, but what about the constant rise to prominence of the extreme-right Front National, that has become a third power?

With a president making desperate gestures to ensure his people believe that he is actually making progress, and both major parties having disappointed the French to the point that only the far-right represents an alternative, the ominous words of former right-wing minister Éric Woerth, who said that these events echoed like the end of the 5th Republic, ring true.

There is no way to predict whether a 6th Republic would be a solution for this profound political crisis, but the past few days have only underlined the obvious need for deeper political reform. The idea of a regular constitution change might be strange to Americans, who have every reason to be proud of the longevity of their institutions. Even though changes in Republics cannot cure all political evils, this is the way the French have found to rekindle their political flame, and to make two opposites balance: political revolution and continuity.


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