Le Régalien et Le Sacre
Valérie Pécresse reportedly intends to devote the beginning of her campaign to “le régalien“: “Il ne faut pas lâcher cette thématique, au moins jusqu’à fin janvier, insiste le député Eric Pauget. Son électorat a de fortes attentes sur le régalien, et cela reste un des points de faiblesse de Macron.” The dictionary tells us what this means: “Qui concerne, qui appartient en propre au roi, au souverain.” Poor Emmanuel Macron: his opponents assail him for concentrating all the powers of government in his person and even mock him for his “Jupiterian” pretensions yet en même temps deride him for his weakness en ce qui concerne le régalien.
This obsession with le régalien is peculiarly French; the word has no English equivalent. As used in the media, it connotes essentially la chasse gardée du président: foreign policy, security (law enforcement, border control), “law and order” (as we would say in the US), public health. Of course, the president is hardly “sovereign” in any of these domains, as the concept of régalien seems to require, whether in the Schmittian sense (“sovereign is he with the power to declare an emergency”) or in the more ordinary sense of a government of laws incorporating various checks and balances on the power of any individual. To be sure, the president can declare martial law or a public health emergency, but even then s/he must contend with law and an administration and the limits imposed by finite means, finite knowledge, and finite predictability.
The French system, which has been called a republican monarchy, is of course tilted toward le régalien in its classic sense, but the tilt is as much metaphorical as real. The problem is not so much in the institutions of the Fifth Republic as in the mentality of the French, shaped by centuries of monarchy and by a republican tradition saturated in the imagery of toppling monarchs. It’s as if the French simply cannot conceive of an executive who is not endowed with the magic of “regalian” power.
This curious peculiarity of French political thought perhaps explains what the article quoted above presents as Macron’s strategy to counter Pécresse: to become a viable potential president in the minds of voters, Macron’s advisors reportedly believe, a candidate must be “anointed”(sacré), as they believe Sarkozy was in his “investiture speech” of January 14, 2007–and as they no doubt also believe (though they do not say to the journalist reporting this view) Macron was in the much-noticed (and much-mocked) event in which he extended his arms like Jesus on the cross while turning his eyes heavenward. Macron’s advisors believe that Pécresse will be prevented by Covid from achieving this necessary sacralization of her person.
This royalist atavism, this strange belief in the miraculous efficacy of le régalien and le sacre, is of course one of de Gaulle’s more unfortunate legacies to the regime he created in his own image.
Photo Credits: Valérie Pécresse by Jacques Paquier (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
I am not sure that I would have included health in “le régalien” as it has only become the more or less exclusive purview of the President since this pandemic and the institution of a Sanitary State of Emergency. In normal times health is to a large extent the joint responsibility of Parliament and the Senate who legislate the social budget.
If asked, I would spontaneously describe “le régalien” as internal security, foreign policy and external security (the military). Of course the distinction is a little less clear between the roles of internal security forces (police) and external security forces (military) since the establishment – following the terrorist mass murders of 2015 – of domestic military operation “Sentinelle” which has the armed military patrolling domestic towns to help guard against further terrorist attacks.
I am pretty sure of course that Pécresse has “law and order” in mind when she describes concentrating on le régalien.
I don’t know a damn thing about France, but it looks like “le régalien” has something to do with manly men doing manly things to “others.” Would Pécresse be at a gender disadvantage? Or does France not work that way?
Good point. A young French builder told Mr last summer that the French are still so sexist that they would have trouble electing a woman president. I often wonder if that is also true of the USA.
I wonder if it’s only Pécresse intent on keeping all French powers French, as opposed to sharing or transferring powers to the European level (where they would be needed).
@Ralf Grahn: as far as I see, there exists nowadays in Europe no desire at all to transfer any powers to the European level. Powers should be where people are — i.e., where a debate on policies is possible (I mean a general debate, a debate in which laypersons can have a voice if they wish to) . So far, that means (in Europe): at national, and sometimes infra-national, level. Or sometimes also at global, world level (e.g. on regulating social networks). A European place for debate just does not exist — yet they tried hard, since 40+ years, to create one.
Beyond that issue — the post is great, thanks Art. Yes we French do have that mental process of attributing a king’s power to our President, and considering our “check and balance” consist in firing him/her at next election; and in protesting in streets and shaming his/her name, if we disagree. But not really firing him/her *before* any election.
We would like to consider “that’s the way France is”, yet, as you mention, IIIrd and IV Republics did not go that way, it was rather re-ignited by De Gaulle presidency! (and in some respect by the Pétain régime — scholarship is needed to re-integrate Vichy in our understanding of French politics, as it was integrated in the 50’s-early 60’s, before the present tendency to analyze it only as a satellite of the German nazi regime).
I would incline to argue, based on the De Gaulle and Pétain cases, as well as with experience from Burkina Faso (the very strong protests against the Compaore regime, after Norbert Zongo was assassinated, never went as far as requiring Compaore’s resignation) or common knowledge about China (where the major source of legitimacy for the central power would be the fear of Hobbes’s War of All against All) — to argue that also we French fear a dissolution of our nation, which would leave each of us nude and alone in a hostile world. France is “un château fort”, a fortified castle, inside which we wish we were protected from “les vents mauvais”. A castle surrounded by “les champs des morts”, the graves or our soldiers and heroes, as deeply analyzed by Jean-Marie Domenach in “Regarder la France”. We expect someone to stay in the dungeon and check the horizon while we are working or celebrating inside the walls.
Seen from outside Ile-de-France, Pécresse is just “one among the many” LR politicians, another former Minister easily speaking “la langue de bois” on TV. I guess the way, for her, to obtain the royal status — the role of a ruling Dame — will be co-optation by local lords, emergence as a prima inter pares, a Hugues Capet’s way.