Death to the Republic

Did François Hollande single-handedly kill the state Charles de Gaulle made?

France's Fifth Republic, born 55 years ago, was fashioned in the image of Charles de Gaulle. As Algeria disintegrated into civil war and Paris feared a military putsch at home, the last president of the impotent Fourth Republic, René Coty, asked de Gaulle to take over in his stead. When the aging general was told of popular fears that he would assume dictatorial powers, de Gaulle, who had previously led France's provisional government from 1944-46, replied curtly: "At the age of 67, I'm too old to become dictator."

But the general was not too old to become a president with near monarchical, if not dictatorial powers. De Gaulle had long scorned political parties, blaming them for the fall of France in 1940 and the political paralysis that gripped the country over the crisis in Algeria. Pulsing at the heart of the new constitution he imposed in 1958 was a powerful president whose task was, quite simply, to reign. As for the mundane matters of governance, this was the task of the prime minister and his cabinet, who were responsible to the president alone.

A deeply relieved France welcomed this dramatic change: "La République est morte; vive la République."

Will this same refrain again be chanted, ringing out the Fifth for a Sixth Republic? There has been intense debate in France over the desirability of such a transition. The populist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche, has called for a new republic, as has the centrist François Bayrou and the former Green Party candidate for president, Eva Joly. While they differ on the details, they all share a common goal that would have made de Gaulle see red: an empowered legislative system where the parliament, not president, calls the shots.

Not too long ago another firebrand, Arnaud Montebourg, also argued that the Fifth Republic had exceeded its shelf life. Oddly, Montebourg now serves as a minister in the government of François Hollande -- a man who, for many, represents the best argument for a Sixth Republic. Since his election in mid-2012, Hollande has revealed -- repeatedly and painfully -- his shortcomings as a statesman and politician. But has he also revealed the expiration date of the Republic itself?

This turn of events would not have surprised de Gaulle. The French, he believed, were unworthy of France. For this reason, he insisted on the importance of "great enterprises" which pulled his fellow countrymen from their petty pursuits and thrust France onto the global stage. As he announced in his Memoirs de guerre, France "is not really itself unless it is in the first rank. France cannot be France without greatness...dedicated to an exalted and exceptional destiny."

To this end, de Gaulle designed the Fifth Republic as a vehicle for the politics of grandeur, one marked by an unbending commitment to national independence and autonomy. The creation of the nuclear Force de Frappe, the withdrawal from NATO's integrated military command, and repeated military interventions in France's former African colonies all reflected de Gaulle's preoccupation with rebuilding and maintaining this greatness.

But de Gaulle's vehicle had just one seat and it belonged to him. Elected to a seven-year term, the president was, quite literally, irresponsible: He did not answer to his own government, much less to parliament. He instead answered to the people. This popular preeminence was reinforced in 1962, when following a failed attempt on his life, de Gaulle persuaded the French to introduce direct voting for the president. (His tool was the referendum, which, like direct election, eliminated the traditional brake of parliamentary authority on presidential power.)

At moments of extreme crisis like 1958, the solitary and unencumbered exercise of power has its attractions. Outside of such moments, as Hollande's tenure reveals, not so much. Of course, much has changed since de Gaulle quit the political scene. A world once bipolar has become multipolar, a Europe of sovereign nations has morphed into one subject to supranational laws and authorities, and national economies are now yoked to a single currency as well as global commercial and financial activities. Even the nature of the presidency has changed: In order to align parliamentary and presidential elections, the term of office has been reduced from seven to five years.

Even de Gaulle could not be fully Gaullist under such circumstances. So much is beyond the power of the president today, even if he remains all-powerful in the domestic sphere. But because Hollande remains unchecked by the parliament, it is he who pays the price when the nation strikes against the reefs. And Hollande has been no stranger to reefs, having repeatedly failed to master political events at home. He may, by virtue of his office, be able to push through any law he wishes, but the French president can still be stymied by social contestation and supranational realities over which he has no purchase.

Earlier this year, for example, Hollande allowed a proposed law recognizing gay marriage to balloon into a vast protest movement that disputed the very legitimacy of his government. Since then, on a range of domestic issues -- from a regional rebellion in Brittany against a proposed tax on heavy trucks to persuading Germany to loosen its tight monetary policies -- Hollande made vows that have proved empty and delivered ultimatums that are dead letters.

Public opinion has tracked the consequences of these events. From a hopeful beginning as "President Normal" -- promising a rupture with the bling-bling years of former President Nicolas Sarkozy -- Hollande has tumbled to the statistic-strewn floor of modern polling in France. In November, just 22 percent of respondents approved of his performance. At the same time, Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right wing National Front, continues her climb, outdistancing Hollande by 6 percentage points in one recent poll.

These bare numbers were given unsettling flesh on Nov. 11: During the solemn ceremony marking Armistice Day, protesters booed Hollande as his car passed down the Champs-Elysée. The reasons were many, but the target was one and the same: the president. Commentators have since wondered if this unprecedented event represented a breach of the final taboos protecting the Elysée. At the very least, the historian Jean Garrigues observed, it amounted to a "trivialization of the presidency." This would be no small matter in any democracy, but it takes on far greater resonance in the Elysée-centric world of the French Fifth Republic. When political institutions all rest on the person of the president, Garrigues observes, it raises the question of whether governance is possible "when the president is no longer respected."

In the past, French leaders who found their popular support evaporating turned to the time-hallowed solution of foreign adventures. Napoléon I maintained a constant state of war to keep the French quiescent, while his nephew Napoléon III lurched into his disastrous war against Prussia in order to stave off growing popular discontent with his rule. In between, Charles X, the last of the Bourbon kings, launched the invasion of Algeria to shore up his disintegrating monarchy. Not only did all three of these efforts fail to keep their creators in power, but the Bourbon gift to France, Algeria, created the launch pad for de Gaulle's ascension in 1958.

Hollande, it seems, has resurrected this well-worn script. Since coming to power, he has twice ordered French troops to Africa. But the military interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR) were not, like those of the Bourbons and Bonapartes, wars of choice. Instead, at least from the perspective of the Elysée, they have been thrust on France. Both interventions were arguably wars of necessity: The Islamist threat to the tottering government in Bamako and the perceived risk of genocide in Bangui required an immediate response. It fell to France to act, less by default than historical fault -- its catastrophic role, first as an imperial overlord and then as godfather of Françafrique, has given it the boots and bases on the ground.

While incurably indecisive on the domestic front, Hollande has proved sharp and decisive in Africa. But can the same be said of the consequences of his actions? Hollande's efforts to keep France at the forefront of international affairs, as Middle East specialist Ardavan Amir-Aslani has argued, risk marginalizing the country and draining the government of its credibility with friends and foes alike (a risk that deepens when the French beg Europe and the United States for material support.)

In the case of Mali, the French saved Bamako from the forces of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but also arguably encouraged the terrorist organization to attack the Algerian gas plant at In Amenas. As for the CAR, while it is far from clear if the bloody confusion is a prologue to genocide or simply one more chapter in the never-ending story of a failed state, there is little doubt that the 1,600 troops France has committed are too few to master the spiral of violence. The former head of France's War College, Gen. Vincent Desproges, has insisted that either France must add another 5,000 troops or leave the country to its own fate. Michel Goya, a military historian and active colonel, echoed his claim: "The French forces find themselves in a delicate position: there are too few to impose themselves on events."

Neither intervention, moreover, has translated into popular support at home. Operation Serval in Mali halted his free fall in the polls for only a brief moment, while public opinion was deeply divided from the very start over the wisdom of Operation Sangaris in the CAR. Popular skepticism ran even deeper earlier this year when Hollande argued forcefully for military intervention in Syria -- doubts that morphed into derision when the French president discovered he had gone over the top while the Americans and Brits were busy retreating.

Far from distracting the French from his domestic political failings, Hollande's foreign adventures have actually sharpened the debate about whether it's time for a major institutional overhaul. Named after animals that may soon populate France's list of endangered species, both operations may prove to be ironic harbingers of the Fifth Republic's extinction.  

Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Cuban Paradox

Why is Havana so cautious about reform? Perhaps because its reformer-in-chief is also a stalwart of the revolution.

On Jan. 1, Cuba marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Cuban revolution, when the country's citizens rose up to topple the weak and short-lived dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The revolution led to a power vacuum that was quickly filled by the powerful and long-lived dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Fidel ruled Cuba until 2006, when, citing health reasons, he transferred power to his brother, current President Raúl Castro. (In the photo above, Raúl participates in a ceremony to mark the anniversary in Santiago de Cuba.)

Aside from the fact that Cuba's socialist state has managed to endure for 55 years, there is little for Raúl to celebrate. Cuba's overall income and caloric consumption per capita today are not that much higher than they were in 1958. In 1958, Cuba was at the top among Latin American nations in terms of the number of newspapers, TV stations, TV sets, telephones, and automobiles per capita; today, it is at the bottom.  The government claims that independence from Washington was a significant achievement, but today the Revolution is embarrassingly dependent on Miami, which in 2013 sent remittances amounting to $5.1 billion, enough to provide $1000 for every Cuban worker in a country where the average annual salary is less than $260.

Cuba is a developmental anomaly. It has some of the highest numbers in average years of schooling in the world (as is typical in totalitarian states), but also has one of the lowest economic growth rates in the world. It is hard to find a comparable case: typically, these higher averages go hand-in-hand with higher incomes.

Many blame the U.S. embargo for Cuba's economic underperformance. But the embargo has always been offset by the massive subsidies that the Soviet Union provided during the Cold War and that the petro-state of Venezuela has provided since 2001. And yet, despite these direct subsidies (and Cuba's newly burgeoning trade relations with countries around the world), the state is still unable to produce anything efficiently.

Cuba's only value-added export is the talent of its people, who have been emigrating in droves for the past 55 years despite the lack of civil strife since the mid-1960s. This year, the government liberalized exit visas (though it did not lower the cost of passports), leading to a 35 percent increase in departures relative to 2012. So far, only 45 percent of those who managed to "travel abroad" have decided to return.

Medical doctors also leave in large numbers, usually as part of the state's foreign missions. But Cuban doctors often take the order to go abroad happily: they seem to prefer working in the slums of Venezuela, Brazil, and Haiti to the "socialist paradise" they call home, even though they are paid only a fraction of what the Cuban government charges for these services.

The Cuban economy's dysfunctional nature has not escaped Raúl Castro. In fact, the economy's trials have become a favorite theme in his speeches. Every time he has a chance to talk about local conditions, Raúl admonishes some aspect of the status quo: the "inefficiency" of state-owned companies, the "laziness and proclivity to stealing" of Cuban workers, the "corruption" of managers and bureaucrats, the "absenteeism" of teachers, the "complacency" of the party's leadership, the decline of "morals" and even "manners" of Cuba's youth. While Fidel Castro was the denier-in-chief, famous for speeches that were groundlessly triumphalist and blind to the regime's catastrophes, Raúl does nothing but complain about the system. Whereas Fidel was the Revolution's greatest propagandist, Raúl has become the Revolution's most outspoken fault-finder.

Raúl Castro's attention to the system's flaws is no doubt a breath of fresh air for Cubans tired of living in la-la land. It has compelled Raúl to introduce some of the most sweeping market-oriented reforms of the last 55 years. But the problem is that Cuba's president is acting both as a reformer and a stalwart of the long-standing revolutionary regime. Raúl wants to reform and preserve the system, and this is producing hesitant and confusing reforms.

Raúl's deep roots have made him as repressive as he is open, limiting the economy and curtailing private enterprise. On the one hand, Raúl has created more opportunities for Cubans to become self-employed, to use remittances from exiles, and to buy and sell their assets such as homes and vehicles. These are huge reforms. Today, a record number of Cubans -- 444,109, to be exact -- have obtained self-employment licenses, and a real estate market is burgeoning for the first time since the revolution. From a fiscal point of view, these economic reforms have been successful: fiscal revenues from the private sector are up by 18 percent since 2011.

But as is typical of old-line communists, and especially of his brother, Fidel, Raúl remains apprehensive about the private sector. He worries that the private sector could become too large and thus able to challenge the state's stranglehold on society. Therefore, rather than boosting the private sector with further reforms, the government is holding fast to restrictive policies.

Key areas of the economy remain closed to competition. Self-employment is still banned in most professions that require advanced skills, such as engineering, architecture, software development, and the medical sciences. Large-scale hiring is prohibited, so private enterprise is limited to micro firms and family businesses. Credit for the private sector is virtually non-existent. The self-employed continue to be overregulated; many are closing their businesses because they cannot afford taxes or find enough customers, since the bulk of the population is still employed by the state and receives meager wages. Consequently, the self-employed sector remains far below the goal of 1.5 million individuals set by Raúl when he launched his reforms in 2011.

Raúl's reformer/conservative duality is equally visible in politics. He has expanded the freedom of expression in a number of decrees that liberalize access to cell phones and the Internet -- major steps in the expansion of speech opportunities. Raúl has also voluntarily supported a new amendment to Cuba's constitution that establishes a five-year term limit -- a move that is remarkable even by contemporary Latin American standards, where presidents are wont to relax rather than restrict term limits. Earlier in 2013, he said this would be his last term, which means that he intends to leave office in 2018. And internationally, Cuba is fully cooperating with peace talks in Colombia, a process that is vital for U.S. interests in South America.

But meanwhile, Raúl has also increased Cuba's political repression. Arbitrary detentions have increased from 2,074 in 2010 to more than 5,300 in 2013. The state arrested more than 909 human rights activists in October 2013 alone. This included some members of the Ladies in White, a peaceful, pro-human rights women's association fighting for the rights of Cuban prisoners. Cuba Archive, an organization that monitors human rights, argues that under Raúl's government, the state has overseen at least 166 deaths and disappearances, all politically-motivated, including the possible assassination of Cuba's most important civil rights leader, Oswaldo Payá, in 2012. Politically, therefore, Cuba is not moving forward, but backwards.

Maintaining his old-line roots, the Cuban president also continues to privilege the military over any other sector. During his tenure as minister of defense, Raúl oversaw military operations, and after becoming president, he accelerated Cuba's transition to a pseudo-military regime by appointing key military officials to his cabinet, often to replace civilian fidelistas to consolidate the transition to his own government. Raúl also increased the military's control of industries in Cuba that engage in foreign trade. And though Raúl is critical of almost every sector, he never criticizes the military. In fact, he is openly supportive of it. Just this year, the government launched the construction of three new "military cities," state-of-the-art housing development projects for members of the Armed Forces.

In political science, we are not that surprised by duality. From Russia to China to the Arab World, new leaders often emerge who try to act simultaneously as reformers and old-liners, hoping to overhaul the status quo while maintaining the main elements of the existing regime. While political scientists expect one side to prevail, they are used to the idea of conflicted leaders.

But in Washington, this duality only worsens the divide between those who favor rapprochement and those who oppose it. Raúl's duality raises hope among some groups who feel the time is ripe for the United States to open to Cuba, and vice versa. But others see Raúl the old-liner, and they become even more adamant about vetoing any efforts to rebuild the ties between the two states. The result is a continued impasse in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Raúl Castro seems to be fine with this middling approach. Just two weeks after the famous controversial handshake between Obama and Raúl during Nelson Mandela's funeral, Raúl gave a speech where he addressed U.S.-Cuban relations. Rather than take the opportunity to lambast the empire, as his brother would have done, Raúl stated that officials from both countries have been meeting productively on immigration and other issues, proving that bilateral relations can be "civilized." In his tone and approach, Raúl has shown a pragmatic and even self-satisfied side.

But he also said this: "We don't demand that the United States change its political and social system, nor will we negotiate with ours." With this simple line, Raúl displayed the core of his conservatism. His duty as supreme leader of Cuba, he once affirmed, is to ensure the survival of the system. He won't pay the price of better relations with the United States if that means system change.

Raúl's words were also a warning to his compatriots: namely, that his government is uninterested in real change. For Cubans who found hope in Raúl's initial reforms, this statement is hard to swallow -- not just because of its innate conservatism, but because it comes from the very same man who makes, at every opportunity, the strongest case for a system overhaul than any Cuban official has made in decades.

At some point, Raúl Castro might find himself forced to choose between reform and tradition. While it is common for leaders to want to be reformers and old-liners at the same time, they eventually select one approach over the other. Reforms have a tendency to be self-generating: more freedoms lead to demands for more freedoms, and this in turn means a deeper overhaul of the system. Raúl will need to decide to either yield to these demands or to block them to preserve the system that he and his brothers founded 55 years ago. So far, he hasn't faced this choice. The freedom to be that ambivalent was probably Raúl's biggest cause for celebration on the anniversary last week -- but that freedom won't last forever.