The President’s Private Preserve(s)
Continuing the theme of my previous post, “Staying in the Game,” I want to comment today on another of President Macron’s strategies for keeping the political debate centered on himself, even though he is an increasingly unpopular lame duck with many potential candidates maneuvering to replace him and dwindling support across the political spectrum, including within his own party, if it can still be called a party.
The idea that under the constitution of the Fifth Republic the president is entitled to “un domaine réservé” where his rule is essentially unfettered by the normal checks and balances of the political system is not new. Traditionally, however, it applied to foreign policy. De Gaulle’s assertion of primacy in this area stemmed directly from his (archaic?) belief that only an individual who identified his personal honor with the national honor could prevent the kind of disgrace that France suffered after its defeat in 1940. (See Julian Jackson’s excellent new book on The Trial of Pétain for elaboration of this point.)
After de Gaulle, his singular conception of foreign policy as the president’s private preserve persisted, confounded with a more widely shared belief that politics should end at the nation’s borders so that the country could present a unified front to potential adversaries (as well as allies when necessary). Of course, this was a principle honored as much in the breach as in the observance, but the idea persisted even with presidents who in practice attached less importance than de Gaulle to foreign and defense matters.
But de Gaulle’s successors had other domains of predilection as well. Giscard prided himself on his economic expertise. Mitterrand fancied himself a patron of the arts. Chirac promised to heal la fracture sociale. Sarkozy vowed to clean out la racaille.
Macron has seized upon the schools. This will be his domaine réservé, he asserted after firing an education minister, Pap Ndiaye, who was never allowed to carry out the reform for which he was ostensibly appointed because the president prevented him at every turn.
Ndiaye’s replacement, Gabriel Attal, seems to be carrying out a plan to assert the authority of the central executive over the schools. Politically, his first move was well calculated: the ban on the abaya and qamis is widely supported across the political spectrum, even by those who vote for parties (LFI and EELV) that have expressed opposition. The ban has at least the appearance of appealing to the fundamental principle of laïcité. It also has the virtue, from a political standpoint, of affecting almost no one: according to the minister himself, only 298 students out of a total of 12 million encountered disciplinary action, and of those, only 67 refused to comply with instructions to remove the offending item of clothing.
Nevertheless, discussion of the ban has dominated the news of la rentrée, to the exclusion of other urgent matters such as a (renewed) shortage of classroom teachers. As always where symbols of Islam are involved, the debate was certain to raise the temperature of public discourse along with the profile of certain problematic (but far from influential) actors, such as associations encouraging Muslim students to defy the ban. With little cost, the president has thus placed himself on the side of the vast majority of his countrymen, given himself the opportunity to take a firm stand on an issue often claimed by those to his right, and stolen the wind from their sails.
Clearly, the abaya ban is well within the norms that have prevailed in French public schools since the headscarf controversy. It could have been handled quietly, discreetly, without confrontational tactics. But the schools having been declared part of the presidential chasse gardée, the big game are there to be bagged by the big man, who has decided not to deny himself the opportunity for an easy win and a resounding assertion of authority, even if limited to la cour de récréation as opposed to the international arena. But what happens in the schoolyard may well swing more votes than what happens in Ukraine or at the G20.