Can French presidentialism serve as a model for Italy?

FIGAROVOX/GRANDSTAND – The Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni proposes to reform the Italian institutions on the French model. However, the institutions of the VAnd La République is out of breath and must also be reformed, explains historian Jean Garrigues.

Historian and academic, Jean Garrigues is a specialist in political history. He is President of the Parliamentary Commission of History. He is the author of several books including Charles de Gaulle. The providential man in a deck chair (Dunod Editions, 2020).

Elected Prime Minister, at the head of a center-right coalition, Giorgia Meloni is already thinking of a constitutional revision. In the fifteen-point program that allowed him to rise to power there is in fact the plan to have the President of the Italian Republic elected by universal suffrage, today appointed by the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate and 58 regional delegates together in a joint session. Thus a French-style presidentialism would be established in Italy, contrary to the constitutional tradition established in our neighbors since the Constitution of 1948.

However, how can we fail to notice the failure of a system that General de Gaulle and Michel Debré had devised to overcome the impotence of the party system and strengthen the legitimacy and authority of the executive power? If it is true that election by universal suffrage gives the presidents of the Fifth Republic incontestably greater legitimacy than that of the presidents of the Third or FourthAnd, nominated by the vote of the two assemblies, it is no less true that this democratic legitimacy has continued to erode as the abstention rate has increased, from 15.2% in 1965 to 26.3% in 2022. Knowing that Emmanuel Macron won only 27.8% of the votes in the first round of the last presidential elections (when de Gaulle totaled 44.6% in 1965), it can be assumed that the democratic legitimacy of the head of state weighs only on a small quarter of the electorate. As for the verdict of the opinion, expressed by polls, it grants only 36% of good opinions to the President of the Republic, and 41% to his Prime Minister. It is worrying for the historian to note that the presidents of the III or IVAnd Republic, dedicated to “inaugurating the chrysanthemums,” as General de Gaulle hinted at his press conference on September 9, 1965, has mostly appeared to be far more popular, indeed far more beloved, than our 21st-century presidents.

One would have thought that the institution of the five-year term, combined with the reversal of the electoral calendar, would make it possible to stem the dynamics of presidential delegitimization. Quite the opposite happened. The double revision of 2000 not only reduced the long-term government capacity of the Head of State, but also contributed to strengthening the “majority factor” (installed since 1962), leading to the overtaking of the President of the Republic who has become both head of state plethoric parliamentary majority and premier in the name of the hyper-presidency or the arrogance of Jupiter. Result: far from seeing his authority strengthened, the president has lost his function as arbiter above the parties to immerse himself in a political-media fray that makes him the scapegoat for all evils, the man to be killed on whom all the hatreds and frustrations of French society converge.

A new political balance between the executive and the legislative could have helped restore the image of our democratic life in the eyes of the disillusioned and dissatisfied French people.

John Garrigues

An opportunity to re-legitimize the institutions of the Fifth Republic presented itself during the legislative elections, which miraculously escaped the presidential logic. The presidential discredit has been such that, unlike in 2017, voters have broken the fatality of the majority to arouse an audible opposition in the face of the relative majority of the head of state. This unexpected coexistence between a weakened president and an unstable assembly does not at all correspond to the Gollian ideal of authoritative government, but it has the immense merit of giving a breath of democratic fresh air to a system that seemed to be fossilized by presidentialism. . By now being able to make itself heard in both assemblies, and not only in the Senate where it has the majority, the opposition forces the executive couple to adopt a negotiating and compromise strategy. This new political balance could have helped restore the image of our democratic life in the eyes of the disillusioned and dissatisfied French.

Unfortunately, the first months of the new legislature do not seem to live up to the expectations raised. The institutional actors seem unable to get out of the presidential logic, both on the side of the Elysée, where the Jovian temptation still seems to predominate, and on the side of the opposition, obsessed with the prospect of the next elections after a possible dissolution. On the part of the extremes it is the shallot race to challenge macronism, normalization on one side, conflictuality on the other, and on the side of the Republicans it is an artistic obfuscation imposed by the indecision of the strategic choice for the 2027 presidential elections. And so it is that we return to the perverse effects of our parliamentary system that has become presidential.

The electoral decoupling between the legislative and presidential elections would allow time and height to be given to the head of state, for a longer term of six or seven years, more in line with the grand presidential plan.

John Garrigues

Should we therefore remove from our common history this ritual which has become the presidential election, the only one which attracts even more voters than abstainers? The idea cannot be excluded because the figure of the leader is no longer what it used to be. But in the immediate future, it seems difficult to deprive ourselves of this crucial moment in our political life, which fits perfectly with the Bonapartist tropism of our national narrative. Instead, what seems more urgent, and more feasible, would be a return to 1958, i.e. to a well-defined division of tasks between the Head of State, arbiter and father of the nation, and a Prime Minister, group leader of the parliamentary majority, and who governs without being a collaborator of the president. The return to a Gaullist presidency, withdrawn into the reserved domain of foreign affairs and national defense, and detached from the contingencies of any communication, would restore height, authority and perhaps popularity to the head of state. Thus General de Gaulle conceived the presidential function, to instill greatness and not manage the upheavals of the immediate. The Republic must be embodied once again in an arbitral president, above the fray. When the citizenry falters, when the collective fractures, a father figure is needed, in the absence of the Gaullist hero.

It is still necessary for citizens to feel better represented and listened to by the authorities, as also General de Gaulle had hoped for by instituting the referendum. We know the dangers of this, especially in the climate of distrust that exists today between citizens and the powers that be. On the other hand, the most democratic means of returning the word to the people is simply to re-evaluate the legislative elections which designate the nation’s representatives. From this perspective, it seems like a civic emergency to end the five-year term and therefore de-link the legislative elections from the presidential ones, so that everything is possible for the opposition. Incidentally, this electoral decoupling would give the Head of State time and height, for a longer term of six or seven years, more in line with the grand presidential design. Furthermore, the instillation of a dose of proportional representation, promised in 2017, would allow for a more democratic representation in the National Assembly.

Due to their flexibility, some would say their ambiguity, the institutions of the Fifth Republic made it possible to adapt to multiple and apparently insoluble situations, as demonstrated by the periods of coexistence. Let us take advantage of this institutional adaptability to return to the spirit of 1958, without denying the presidential election by universal suffrage. Reconciling Mirabeau and Bonaparte, the authority of the leader and the need for a parliamentary democracy, this is the whole history of the Republic starting from the French Revolution, and this is basically what the founding fathers of our Constitution wanted. It is urgent to find the original spirit!

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