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.