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The useless reshuffle : another French exception


Following lacklustre performance at local elections, the French President has appointed a new Prime Minister. Is it a good tactic, and will it change anything?

A strange and preternatural atmosphere surrounded the reshuffle following the French municipal elections. Everyone was waiting for the inevitable fall of the Prime Minister and his replacement. But bizarrely nobody seems to mind this peculiar French custom that amounts to both an admission of impotence, a transfer of irresponsibility and abuse of power. Once again the President has used his Prime Minister as a safety valve, getting rid of the latter whereas it is the President’s policies that are questioned by the French. France is the only western democracy to have a dual executive, where the President may refuse to be responsible for the election result, circumventing the Constitution by replacing the Prime Minister in a few minutes. It should be noted that the government and its leader should represent the parliamentary majority and be accountable to the National Assembly. In fact, it is the President who alone appoints and sacks the Prime Minister. Moreover, the ministers are designated by the Elysée. Thus the Prime Minister remains what Jean-François Revel called a “fiction” in his essay Inefficient Absolutism (Plon, 1992)).

Worse, this razzmatazz is completely sterile as the reshuffle fills no purpose whatsoever. It has never stopped any majority from crumbling shortly afterwards. Following the 1983 reshuffle of the socialist cabinet the centre-right won the 1986 elections by a wide margin. Two more reshuffles ensued in 1991 and 1992, when Pierre Bérégovoy replaced Edith Cresson who replaced Michel Rocard, followed by a spectacular loss in the 1993 elections. The next reshuffle was on the right in November 1995 and another defeat less than two years later. Any President who uses his powers to pass the buck fails to understand that such a behaviour is pointless as long as the policies remain unchanged.

But it is not only pointless, it’s another French exception. When a German political party loses local or the European elections, the Chancellor does not get rid of her ministers at the drop of a hat (the German President has practically no power as the position is mostly symbolic). Government reshuffles are scarce, ministers only resign for health reasons or in case of scandal. The same applies in Sweden where local elections are separate from national elections and have no impact on the sitting government. And as in Germany and the United Kingdom, mandates cannot be accumulated so ministers are not concerned by local elections.

In 2004 and 2006, Tony Blair’s New Labour took a terrible beating in the local elections. Only minor changes were made inside the cabinet and were chiefly dictated by a series of scandals striking Labour in 2005-2006. Eventually Tony Blair resigned himself a year later in favour of Gordon Brown.

In the midterm elections in November 2010, Obama and the Democrats were badly defeated, losing more than 60 seats in the House of Representatives as well as their majority. Several Democrat governors were also replaced by Republicans. But this did not change anything within the Obama administration, except that the chief of staff, Emmanuel Rahm became mayor of Chicago. Vice-President Joe Biden did not have to resign and is still in office.

The reshuffle is thus a very typical French exception which is tantamount to “chopping the patient’s head off in order to cure his migraine” as Jean-François Revel wrote. But other remedies would be needed to save France.

Nicolas Lecaussin is Director of Development at IREF (Institute for Research in Economic and Fiscal Issues) based in Paris.

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