November 16

The President of the Republic

Imagine the scene.

Law and order has broken down, every evening hundreds of cars are torched, schools and hospitals burned down. You turn on the television for the evening news.

Instead of the presenter, the national anthem is played and the screen is filled with an announcement “The President of the Republic”, and the President is introduced

The cameras move to a room in the Presidential Palace. The president addresses the nation. A central feature is his message to the youth of the nation: ‘Each one of you is a son or daughter of the Republic.’

He does not explain why the government, himself, the prime minister and the minister for the interior seems unable to act. He does not say, but the suspicion remains – that he wants to be re-elected at the next election and that the immunity the presidency gives is significant reason.

It has even protected him from investigation for alleged crimes in an earlier political office. And his prime minister and the minister for the interior are both rivals for preselection as the governing party’s candidate, and he can sack them both and dissolve parliament- if he wishes.

But he has to be careful – last time he did that the opposition obtained a majority. He speaks for over a quarter of an hour – uninterrupted. But he says nothing of substance.

At the end, the presenter, deferentially, tells the nation what the President had just said.

This could be a nightmare, life in Federal Republic of Australia. It is actually happening in another republic-France’s Fifth. On the morning of Tuesday, SBS repeated the previous evening’s TV news from Paris. This is from a major network, and intended for domestic viewing – it is not the equivalent of CNN or BBC World.

What viewers saw instead of the news, was the President speaking platitudes for about 17 minutes.

The Fifth Republic is not working well, for at least three reasons .

First there is the structural flaw of having a political head of state with codified but considerable powers together with a parliamentary prime minister.

Unbelievably, this is the sort of republic Mark Latham wanted and Mr Beazley now seems to favour.

They actually want to replace our stable constiutional system with this!

The second reason is that French culture treasures the events of 1789, the revolutionary violence of that time , as if it were a great achievement.

In fact the French Revolution was a tragic disaster, but few will admit that. There is a strong view in France that political crises can be solved by revolutionary action, last seen in 1968 and one decade before as the Fourth republic collapsed.

The third reason for the failure of the Fifth Republic is the republican policy towards her immigrants which we are constantly told is based on ‘republican values’, but seems to depend on physically separating the immigrants, and putting them in vast satellite public housing estates outside of the cities.

Immigrants , and the children of immigrants are hardly found in positions of power in France, unlike Australia, Canada, the US or the UK.

( Yes, the US is a republic, but if you ignore the civil war, and the excessive rigidity in the system, it does works. But it has never been succesfully exported, unlike the Westminster system)

This concentration of large but separate immigrant communities has not at all appealed to the rank and file French people, who are attracted to the anti- immigrant M. Le Pen, who replaced the socialists as M. Chirac’s opponent in the last presidential election.

Julian Tompkin in The Australian of 15 November , 2005 (Revolutionary sound inspires music to burn for) tries to give some cultural context to this. She writes:

“When riots broke out in Paris on October27, the world looked on in confusion. How could this happen in one of Europe’s last utopian welfare states? By the time the entire country was engulfed by firebombs the commentators had pens drawn and aimed directly at the heart of the republic. “

“Why wasn’t this crisis uncovered before it spilled over into violence and destruction? The truth is it had been, but the authorities and the newspapers didn’t want to know about it. You needed to buy a CD to discover the reality of France and its crise des banlieues…

She cites an anthem, L’etat Assassine, featured in director Mathieu Kassovitz’s groundbreaking 1995 film, La Haine (Hate): "From black Africa to North Africa to Corsica to Ireland/The minorities are rising, our blood comes from the same sap…The government is the head of state that is the assassin." “By the 1990s, France had become hip-hop’s second most creative and lucrative market after the US, but mainstream France did its best to ignore the army that was congregating at its ancient walls… “But while hip-hop in the US collapsed under its own weight into a more malleable world of commercial pop and oversexed ramblings, its French counterpart was bracing for its biggest attack on the republic yet. Poverty was worsening, the ghettos were becoming even more alienated and the right-wing, anti-immigration political party the Front National was gaining momentum.”

There are lessons in the French experience. The most elementary is that any flirtation with the Fifth Republic as a model for Australia would be not only unwise, it would be foolish.

Until next time,

David Flint



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