François Hollande, the socialist candidate, won the French presidential election on May 6. He got 51.63% of the vote against 48.37% for the incumbent conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Quite a good score, even if Sarkozy did much better than expected.
However, the presidency is only a first step. A lot will depend on the National Assembly elections, which are due to take place on June 10 and 17. If the socialists and their allies secure themselves an absolute majority, Hollande will enjoy quasi-monarchical powers for five years. If they do not, he will be a lame duck.
Americans are familiar with similar scenarios, except the United States Constitution provides a clear-cut separation of powers and thus preserves many of the presidential powers and prerogatives, even against a hostile or uncooperative Congress. Whereas the French Fifth Republic constitution, a creation of Charles de Gaulle in 1958, combines — in an uneasy and uncertain way — presidential and Westminsterian features, and thus turns any conflict between the powers into a ballistic zero-sum drama. In theory, France is not ruled by its president, as in the American presidential system, but rather by its prime minister who, as in the English Westminsterian system, is answerable to the National Assembly. As long as both officials are political partners, the president — endowed with such special powers as the right to call for an early election or a referendum — is a de facto but undisputed CEO. When they belong to different and competing parties, the prime minister takes over.
De Gaulle perfectly understood the logic — or the illogic — of his system: he made clear that the president, once deprived of electoral support, had no choice but to resign. He actually acted accordingly in 1969, when he abdicated following a failed referendum on comparatively minor issues. Things changed, however, when François Mitterrand, the Fifth Republic’s first socialist president, was faced with a conservative National Assembly in 1986: instead of resigning he agreed to become a lame duck — but a lame duck with teeth who made full use of his residual powers in order to undermine the cabinet, to hasten its fall, and to win a reelection in 1988.
A conservative and allegedly Gaullist president, Jacques Chirac, followed in 1997 when his party lost an early election he himself had called. For the five ensuing years, he “cohabited“ (to use the authorized French expression) with Lionel Jospin, the socialist prime minister. Both under Mitterrand and Chirac, cohabition led to such ridiculous situations as the president and the prime minister of France together attending international summits like G7 or the European Council.
Things went even further in 2002, when Jospin introduced — with Chirac’s assent — a constitutional revision that shortened the president’s term from seven to five years. Since the Assembly is also elected for five years, the obvious outcome was that the parliamentary election would closely follow the presidential one. It worked to Chirac’s advantage upon his reelection in 2002, and then to Sarkozy’s advantage in 2007.
Hollande is convinced that the same will be true about him next month. But will it? There is at least one precedent that he should consider. After being reelected in 1988, Mitterrand called an early election to get rid of the 1986 conservative National Assembly. What he got was a lame Assembly with a relative but not an absolute majority for the socialist party, and a weak centrist minority could not act as a steady ally. Five years later, he lost the 1993 parliamentary election and was reduced to a lame duck position again. Since he was then dying of cancer, he could not again mastermind a socialist revenge; on the other hand, he was treated in an extremely respectful and dignified way by the day’s ruler, conservative Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.
Can the Right actually wrest the National Assembly from Hollande next month? It is not wholly unthinkable. First and foremost, one must remember that the main factor for Sarkozy’s defeat was his personal unpopularity, and not just among the Left — which hated him from the onset in the most irrational way — but also among the Right, which felt he had not implemented the platform he had been elected for in 2007. Even given such unpopularity, Sarkozy managed to win back most of the conservative vote.
What, then, of a new and less controversial conservative leader? For the time being, there are three potential leaders. Jean-François Copé, the UMP (conservative party) boss, is an overambitious young man who opposed Sarkozy on many issues but is nevertheless seen as a Sarkozy’s clone (a bad point). François Fillon served as Sarkozy’s underling prime minister for five years and enjoyed some kind of popularity among conservatives for looking more conservative than his boss, but he could not possibly cut it against Hollande. Alain Juppé, the mayor of Bordeaux and a former prime minister under Chirac, seems to enjoy as much gravitas as Hollande and could actually be up to the job.