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Giscard: L'etat c'est moi


By Michael Lerner

IMAGINE the following scenario--Act 1: The press reveals that President Carter and two of his first cousins accepted an unknown quantity of diamonds from a blood-lustful, third-world tyrant; that Rosalynn Carter uses privileged White House information to turn a profit on the stock market; that Carter's closest adviser may have had foreknowledge of the murder of a noted political figure. Act II: No congressional inquiry of the President takes place. Instead, Carter wins a second term in a landslide victory.

While the script seems implausible in U.S. politics, a credible version is now being produced on the French political stage. While first-lady Anne-Aymone is under attack for using inside sources to make a killing on the Paris stock market, adviser Michel Poniatowski is being investigated for obstructing justice, and two first cousins have been accused of following the Executive's lead in accepting diamonds from former Central African dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa, French President Valerie Giscard d'Estaing nonetheless stands as perhaps the most secure of western leaders, facing a red carpet to reelection in 1981.

A comparison of French and American reaction to political scandal only illustrates how far the Atlantic separates the two nations' ideas of "the presidency." While in theory the two countries maintain similar political systems, in practice they are as different as apple pie and crepe suzette. Only two months ago, Jimmy Carter narrowly escaped Washington's heated "Billygate," which made headlines for weeks and almost cost Carter the nomination. On the other hand, throughout the many scandals that have shattered the pristine panes of the Elysee Palace since his election in 1974, Giscard d'Estaing has shown plexiglass resistance; none of the various family misdeeds threatened his right to office. A French president piously pleading his probity to the public is inconceivable. In France, the president stands above personal calumny, cautiously leaning on an inveterate heritage of divine right.

How can a pluralistic democracy coexist with a monarch at its head? The answer lies in the constitution, in the division of power, and in the personality of the "king" himself. De Gaulle's Fifth Republic prescribes an almost absolute executive. Disdainful of the "regime of the parties" that stalemated governments of the Third and Fourth Republics, the general reduced the role of the legislative and the judiciary to little more than docile vassals for government directives. The system lacks the checks and balances that were deliberately built into the U.S. system, allowing Giscard to maneuver in ways Jimmy Carter could never hope to emulate.

But with such overwhelming power, the president needed safeguards to protect him from his often unruly populace. Accordingly, the constitution cleverly shelters the president from the responsibility of day-to-day politics while putting the onus of government failures on his appointed prime-minister. Blame for the country's implacable double-digit inflation and ever-rising unemployment falls on Raymond Barre, not Giscard. The government's retaliatory economics policies have become known as "The Barre Plan." Giscard operates almost invisibly, pushing Barre forward as the government's official bearer of bad news, letting him take the heat for unpopular policies. The result: Giscard's approval rating consistently rides a good 15 per cent higher than Barre's. Freed from the burden of popular disenchantment with the state of the nation, Giscard can maintain a high profile in foreign affairs, a low profile in domestic turmoil, and most importantly, a distance between himself and his people.

Further abetting an imperial presidency is the almost complete absence of the fourth power--the press. The state controls all radio stations and television networks, assuring constant praise, or at least minimal criticism, of the president's performance. And while the written press ostensibly escapes government intervention, lawsuits and other more indirect forms of chastisement often befall publications for printing "injurious" material. If a certain newspaper seems too critical, the government instructs its faithful employees to deprive that publication of all political information. The unfaithful quickly fall back into line.

There are even press laws which prescribe stiff penalties for those who offend the "honour and dignity" of the president. That these laws date from 1881 did not deter de Gaulle from invoking them 118 times while in office. So when Giscard deigned to hold a press conference over the Bokassa affair, he had little difficulty dodging uncomfortable questions. With such an arsenal of press restrictions, Giscard worries far less than Jimmy Carter about public invective. The press' lack of freedom directly enhances the president's power, permitting him to play up the laudable and tone down the culpable.

GISCARD'S position has evolved considerably from his 1974 role as the "people's president." During that election, he ran what many perceived as an American-style campaign: psoing for informal pictures with friends and family while playing accordian, or standing bare-chested in a soccer stadium. Once in office, he even invited garbage collectors to dinner at the Elysee Palace and once a month staged a televised meal with an "average French family" at their home. But that populist touch has now all but vanished. Today he is aloof, unabashedly aristocratic, and fashions himself a closet literary critic with a passion for Guy de Maupassant. He has learned to manipulate the constitution and the press to serve his interests, and today projects an almost frigid aura of statesmanship. Giscard now practices with atavistic veracity de Gaulle's most imperial trait--standing at a calculated distance form his people. And judging from his re-election prospects, the French approve.

Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote how, on the eve of the French Revolution, the monarchy seemed inexpugnable even to those men who were about to destroy it. His words still apply today. With all his monarchical attributes, Giscard stands to be the first of the Fifth Republic's presidents to complete a full first term and launch a second. Long live the king.

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