Friday, September 7, 2007
The Pendulum Of Power
For anyone with an interest in politics, the developments of the past six months here in France could serve as a primer in the dynamics of power. Particularly the peculiar alchemy of how power contested becomes power consolidated, only to become contested once again.
The most striking aspect of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency so far has been the way in which he transformed a 53% electoral victory into an effective dominance of the political landscape, even in the face of a lower-than-expected parliamentary majority. A lot has to do with the actual state of the opposition: The 47% who voted against him did not necessarily vote for his opponent. A lot also has to do with his skillful dismantling of the fractured Socialist Party by offering plum ministerial and advisory posts to the PS stars who were too impatient to wait another 5-10 years for the party to regroup and retake power. Finally, a good deal has to do with his skillful management of the media. More than any previous French president, Sarkozy seems to have understood how media has been transformed in the information age, and his active governing style is tailor-made for dominating the political dialogue and determining the lines of debate.
But power consolidated inevitably leads, once again, to power contested, even if that alchemy is more difficult to trace. In the face of a conquering hero, most opposition seems feeble, petty, and ineffective. So where does opposition arise, and under what circumstances does it gain legitimacy? When the consolidated power over-reaches, raising fears of absolutism and tyranny. And when it fails, leaving doubts about its omnipotence.
Once again, the French political landscape offers a demonstration, in the person of Dominique de Villepin. As a former UMP prime minister, Villepin is ostensibly within Sarkozy's majority, even if they belong to rival clans. In fact, at one time it looked like Villepin was the only person who might stand a reasonable chance of disappointing Sarkozy's presidential ambitions. But Sarkozy skillfully outmaneuvered him in the party in-fighting that determined the UMP nominee, where Villepin's tenure as prime minister presiding over the last days of Chirac's failed presidency handicapped him.
But not content with defeating Villepin, Sarkozy has made it clear that he intends to destroy him. And the instrument he has chosen is the Clearstream affair. Sarkozy believes Villepin was behind a smear campaign designed to de-rail his presidential aspirations, and has promised to "hang him from a butcher's hook". But Villepin, after silently suffering a series of humiliating searches and perquisitions over the summer, has now decided to fight back. In part, his calculation is based on political survival. But it is also, I suspect, based on his astute understanding of the dynamics of power (his new book describes Napolean's fall from grace).
Villepin is calling attention to the danger posed to an impartial judiciary by a President (who under French jurisprudence oversees the magistrature) who is also a civil party to the Clearstream investigation. Which takes care of the first condition for legitimating opposition, namely overreach. And by offering a critique of Sarkozy's policies from the right, he has filled the political vacuum left by the decline of the left. In so doing, he has clearly defied the imperium and raised the stakes considerably. For should he survive, he will have demonstrated the limits of Sarkozy's power, which is the first step in pushing it back.
All of this in many ways resembles the problems faced by Democrats in the aftermath of 9/11, where President Bush enjoyed such an overwhelming level of popular support that it became almost impossible to rein in his power. Even in the face of Bush's repeated overreaching and legislative failure, the Democrats have not been able to frontally contain him, which I attribute to the impact of 9/11 on the country's political judgment, as well as their relatively fragile Congressional majority.
The tipping point will undoubtedly come from Bush's flank (ie. from someone like Chuck Hagel). Of course, we've known it all along. We just didn't think it would take this long.