- Last Updated: 12:33 AM, May 8, 2012
- Posted: 10:37 PM, May 7, 2012
Now to the third round! This was the battle cry across the French political spectrum yesterday, even as the threat of months of uncertainty loomed.
The third round, of course, isn’t about electing the president. That happened Sunday, when Socialist challenger Francois Hollande unseated conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in a tight race.
But next month voters will elect a new parliament — which may or may not give the new president the majority he needs to govern effectively.
The French Fifth Republic, concocted by Gen. Charles De Gaulle in 1958, is a peculiar beast. In it, the president, elected in a nationwide vote, has immense constitutional powers, but he can exercise those powers only through the prime minister, who depends on a parliamentary majority.
So the president can be from one party and the prime minister from one opposite. The French call this “cohabitation,” a challenging experience by any measure. Since 1981, France has witnessed three “cohabitations” for a total of nine years.
Adding to the complexity is that the two main parties, the Socialist Party and the Gaullist movement in its many emanations, are themselves coalitions.
The Gaullist camp, most recently in the form of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, has sheltered conservatives, nationalists, Christian democrats, Christian socialists and liberals of different shades. The Socialist Party has at times relied on Stalinist, Trotskyite and trade-union support. And of course each coalition can be torn by rivalries among ambitious personalities.
The emergence of radical forces on the right and left may also make it hard for the new president easy to secure a straight parliamentary majority.
On the right, Marine Le Pen’s National Front hopes to win enough parliamentary seats to form a bloc. (The minimum needed is 25.) On the left, a coalition of Stalinist and Trotskyites, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, could end up with as many as 40 seats.
Smaller groups, such as the left Radicals and the right Radicals (two wings of the same party that split in the 1970s), could form a centrist group with Francois Bayrou’s Democratic Movement. The Greens may also secure a larger presence than in the current parliament.
So the two main camps could fail to secure a majority, presaging a new “cohabitation” in which the president is reduced to a largely symbolic role.
Forming a majority might be easier for the Socialists than for the Gaullists. The so-called Union of the Left dates back to the 1970s and the “Common Program” of the Socialist and Communist parties.
The Gaullists, meanwhile, might have to make a coalition with the National Front to secure a majority — which would mean losing the centrist allies whose support has enabled the Gaullists to govern for much of the last six decades.
Whatever happens in the third round, both main camps will experience bitter power struggles. In the Socialist camp, the fight among “the elephants,” ambitious faction chiefs, is likely to be intense. Everyone would want a bigger share of power if the party manages to win control of parliament for the first time since 2002.
Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius is asking for “a big position,” while party chief Martine Aubray is modeling herself as the left’s matron. Half-a-dozen “elephants” are campaigning to become prime minister. Even the faction loyal to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced former International Monetary Fund chief, is making noise on his behalf.
In the conservative camp, the post-Sarkozy era has already started, if only because he made it clear that this would be his last presidential campaign. Outgoing Prime Minister Francois Fillon and outgoing majority leader Jean-Francois Copé are recruiting supporters for a showdown. Foreign Minister Alain Juppé remains popular with the Gaullists.
Sometime soon, France must mull fundamental changes in its constitution, which was tailor-made for a “supreme leader” who no longer exists. That could mean thinking about a sixth republic.Follow @NYPostOpinion