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The moment of truth for France

May 6, 2013 | By Edwy Plenel

France's Fifth Republic is reeling after the impact of the Cahuzac scandal. As François Hollande becomes isolated and shuts himself away inside an out-of-date presidential system that has always been fatal for the Left, the Right has been underlining its drift towards extremism, calling for a 'new 1958'. In other words, a coup d'état. Mediapart's Editor-in-Chief Edwy Plenel says it is now up to the people to produce the boldness that the country's leaders lack; to force a much-needed and democratic refounding of the Republic.

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France's Fifth Republic is reeling after the impact of the Cahuzac scandal. As François Hollande becomes isolated and shuts himself away inside an out-of-date presidential system that has always been fatal for the Left, the Right has been underlining its drift towards extremism, calling for a “new 1958”, the year in which the current presidential system was created. In other words, a coup d'état. It is now up to the people to produce the boldness that the country's leaders lack; to force a much-needed and democratic refounding of the Republic.

“France needs a new 1958,” wrote Jean-François Copé in an opinion article in Le Figaro on 4th May. The president of the right-wing opposition UMP was referring to the fateful year when, in the Algerian capital Algiers, a revolt by extremist military offices put an end to the Fourth Republic, a parliamentary-based system that had lost its way and become discredited by its blindness over colonialism. The fact that this change, which allowed  Charles De Gaulle to return, did not give rise to a dictatorial regime does not stop the Fifth Republic from being what might be termed a 'regime of exception', scarred by its anti-democratic beginnings.

The comments from the titular head of the Right confirms the shift towards radicalisation that it has undertaken since former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his followers took control of it, marginalising the old republican right. Having in power espoused themes of the extreme right, by openly allowing talk about national identity and inequality of treatment, in opposition it has since supported the street violence of the far-right radical fringes that has taken place on the margins of the protests against same-sex marriages. And now we see a shameless call for the overthrow of the established system.

If ever republicans of all shades needed a sign that this is a decisive moment, then this surely is it. It is all the more significant that it comes from a man, Jean-François Copé, who in 2011 was revealed by Mediapart to have paddled in the swimming pool of the arms dealing intermediary Ziad Takieddine; from a corporate lawyer who, until very recently, saw no conflict of interest in combining lucrative legal activities with being one of the country’s Members of Parliament; from a man who, along with Éric Woerth, was one of the main defenders on the Right of Jérôme Cahuzac, the tax evader and liar, before the truth about him finally emerged. In short, the declaration comes from a living symbol of the self-interested deals and blindness of a money-dominated world that is today consumed with panic.

For the Cahuzac affair was not simply the revelation of one man's lies but the exposure of a fraudulent system. During the nearly four months in which attempts were made to stifle the truth published by Mediapart, it was democracy itself that failed to function. The government was paralysed, grinding to a halt or actively complicit; the ruling parliamentary coalition faced neither challenges nor opposition; the judicial authorities sat back and waited until Mediapart itself publicly called on it to intervene and the media opposition was largely blind, to the point where it was simply relaying the PR tactics of opponents to Mediapart's revelations.

Our democracy has jammed. It is tired, worn out and de-sensitized. And this is a collective failure. The failure of an institutional system which, far from raising the level of the Republic and reinforcing the state as was claimed at the start, has ended up degrading the former and weakening the latter. More than ever private interests have taken hold of party, ministerial, political and state machinery. Too often politics has become like a profession, forming a caste over the heads of the people in which its members have forged profitable careers switching between the public and private sectors and back again, and in which material gain has replaced a sense of duty.

The lessons to be learnt, from Cahuzac to Guéant

These are not mere transient news stories, they are political facts. These scandals are not the story of personal mistakes but of a collective decay. The common theme of most of the revelations made by Mediapart since its creation, under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy as under François Hollande, has been that of tax evasion and the tax havens that shelter it, which have highlighted the guilty tolerance of our governing elites towards these lofty crimes in which, hiding behind the alibi of wealth, they break the most basic law of all.

From Jérôme Cahuzac's Swiss bank account to Claude Guéant's lifestyle, from a former Socialist Party budget minister to a right-wing UMP interior minister, we find public leaders who do not themselves feel bound by the laws they have voted in and which they are charged with carrying out. It was their shared secret, a secret without party political frontiers, in this world where money and power have become so entwined that private interest has killed public spiritedness and political convictions have simply become opportunities and possibilities, merely serving as a means to an end. If, today, they are in a panic it is because they know that the worst is perhaps yet to come, so numerous are the files now in the hands of investigating magistrates and the police and which contain even more stunning and devastating revelations than have so far emerged.

They would like us to confuse cause and effect, which explains the attacks from their usual mouthpieces, government journalists and the corporate press, against this “populism”, mixing up wheat and the chaff, democratic revival on the one hand and a retreat into national identity on the other. Yet it is their own lack of civil responsibility that has led to civic disaffection, and clearly not the revelations made by journalists and investigating magistrates. This irresponsibility is not the sum of individual faults but the result of a more general and profound deterioration in which we see tolerance of the unthinkable, deals with the improbable and compromise with corruption.

It is time to draw the lesson from a recurring story that has gone on for thirty years, and for four presidencies, two from the Right and two from the Left, from François Mitterrand to François Hollande via Jacques Chirac and then Nicolas Sarkozy. This means not just a few warnings, adjustments and reprimands, which as experience shows and as the investigations carried out by Mediapart have fully illustrated, have not checked, resolved or stopped anything. It means a coordinated, wide-ranging and lasting lesson. And this lesson can have no other outcome than the necessary democratic refounding of a Republic which today no longer belongs to us.

For the irresponsibility comes from the top downwards, spreading like a weed and seeping out like a nasty poison. The Fifth Republic is “outdated, exotic and a-democratic” writes Mediapart contributor Paul Alliès, who is an academic by profession, socialist by commitment and, above all, president of the pioneering Convention pour la Sixième République, founded in 2001, which is campaigning for a Sixth Republic.

His proof of the need for it is as implacable as it is clear, and here is his summary: “[The Fifth Republic] is anachronistic because of the circumstances of its birth, a time when France was still a colonial empire and undervalued the European Community. It kept the need for a strong man at its head, reproducing Bonapartism amid the collapse of a parliamentary regime. And today it has become completely detached from the information society, from the horizontal nature of social networks, of the interactivity of groups and individuals; so much so that the figure of the president has become an unlikely one, whether portrayed in an hysterical or commonplace way.

"It is also every bit as exotic as it is outdated, for France is the only regime in Europe and beyond to practice such presidentialism where 'the absence of morality, a climate of complacence, of complicity, of resignation were there from the beginning in a regime where the institutions are monopolised by an impersonal sovereign and his bureaucracy' [editor's note, quote by former prime minister Pierre Mendès France in 1974]. And it remains a-democratic because it is based to such an extent on the general, political and penal irresponsibility of a head of state who governs without accountability and who in this way contaminates every level right to the periphery, to local authorities.”

Democratic boldness is the key

The other path, that of continuing with the presidential system, can only lead to ruin, where ideals get lost and the electorate is deceived while the people remain dispossessed. Alas, François Hollande is treading this path more and more, imposing his Bonapartist law on his electoral majority and adopting an increasingly egocentric approach to his style of politics. In doing so, and just like François Mitterrand, who forgot that in 1964 he had called the Fifth Republic's constitution a “permanent coup d'état”, Hollande has contradicted his own words. In a speech at Dijon in eastern France on 3rd March 2012 the then socialist presidential candidate did not just talk about returning to a “normal” kind of presidency but about creating a “new Republic” that would end the “omni-presidency” of Nicolas Sarkozy, a “regime of a single person who claims to be able to decide everything, about everything, everywhere”.

Hollande insisted that “omnipotence leads to impotence” and promised that “new rights will be recognised in Parliament to control the government, to investigate the administration’s malfunctioning, to engage in great debates”. The programme was still far removed from a real democratic renaissance for the Republic, but even as modest as it was the Cahuzac affair, from the start of its lies to the truth finally emerging, showed us that this plan could not be fulfilled under the current system, the presidential Republic.

From start to finish it was the president of the Republic who held the key to the affair. He first of all saved the minister by maintaining his confidence in him, despite the evidence of the facts, before forcing Cahuzac to resign in response to events. Then he himself, and him alone, in the unusual setting of the end of a Cabinet meeting, set the agenda to end the crisis with measures that seemed like stopping draughts and plugging leaks, as if he were more anxious to put out the fire that to understand its cause.

One hundred-and-ten years ago, in July 1903, in his famous 'Discours à la jeunesse' or speech to youth at Albi in southern France, which was delivered the same distance in time from the founding Revolution of 1789 as we are from that speech, the socialist politician and historian Jean Jaurès defined the Republic as a “great act of of trust and a great act of boldness”. He added: “Its invention was so bold, so paradoxical that even the daring men who, one hundred years ago, revolutionised the world, at first rejected the idea.”

Now here we are in a similar position, faced with the shock wave of the truth: to invent or give up, to dare or to betray. We need a new Republic and that requires both trust and boldness. If, after just one year, the new government that resulted from the justifiable refusal of Sarkozyism is now completely mistrusted, that is because instead of the required boldness we have seen caution, calculation, precaution and a wait-and-see attitude. The Cahuzac affair demonstrated this to the point of caricature.

In our troubled and uncertain times boldness is, on the contrary, a sign of trust, while caution merely sows discord. In that same speech Jaurès, who rejected the false courage of exaggerated violence in search of scapegoats, praised true courage, that of tenacity and fidelity, of the common path we take together, of caring about the world and others, of deeds matching words, the quest for lofty ideals rather than doing what's always been done.

“Courage,” he said, “is to head towards the ideal and to understand reality; it's to act and to give ourselves up to great causes without knowing what rewards the universe has in store for us, or even if it has any rewards in store. Courage is in seeking out the truth and speaking it; it is in not giving into the latest dominant lie and in not responding, with our soul, mouth and hands, to idiotic applause and fanatical boos.”

May all our fellow citizens and those who represent them have that courage today and take the opportunity given by Mediapart's revelations to refound at last the Republic, and to give it back to its only sovereign, the people.

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English version by Michael Streeter