Testing times for Europe

Does the Presidential system spawn the new all-powerful ‘monarchs’ and Animal Farm Napoleons of our time? Have we come full circle? Thank goodness we opted for and stuck to our Parliamentary democracy in Mauritius

From the republics of ancient India or those of Greece thriving as from about 600-500 BC, mankind has been yearning for a democratic system of government in lieu of being ruled by omnipotent monarchs or despots. As from medieval times, the core principles captured in the Magna Carta (1215), the United States Bill of Rights (1791), the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in the context of the French Revolution (1789) or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) have helped shape the values and ethos underpinning the best democracies and Constitutions of the world.

These have stood the test of time against anti-democratic forces in the post World War II period and through the Cold War. Decolonisation has helped spread the democratic space in the world. However in a globalised world, various recent incidents and developments are putting France’s, Germany’s, Europe’s and the world’s values of human solidarity and democratic principles under stress.

The sexual attacks and muggings by about a thousand men described by police as mainly migrants of Arab or north African origin on 600 German women on New Year’s night in Koln has raised the spectre of cultural divide on important issues such as mores, gender equality and respect for women. It has cast serious doubts on the social integration of the refugees. It has also provoked strong reservations about the more liberal access policy of Germany towards refugees and pulled the drawbridges of Citadel Europe to close its frontiers to refugees.

Moral outrage

This week, the French lower house (Assemblée nationale) passed the controversial proposal to include the stripping of citizenship of French-born nationals convicted of terrorism into the Constitution. This knee-jerk proposal made by Socialist French President Francois Hollande in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 which killed 130 people has provoked moral outrage in France as it is so adrift and alien to France’s fundamental values and its national ethos.

French Guiana born Christiane Taubira’s resigned as Justice Minister amidst the turmoil on principles of ethics and law and over what she termed ‘a major political disagreement’. The slim majority of 12 obtained (with 162 votes for and 148 votes against) against a backdrop of 22 abstentions is a measure of the divide.

After the proposal is also passed by the Senate, a common text of the constitutional amendment will have to be approved by a 3/5th majority vote by a joint meeting of both chambers of Parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate) sitting, as per the French Constitution, in Congress at Versailles.  The submission of a common text to Parliament could prove to be difficult as the right wing majority in the Senate has announced its intent to rewrite the text. The Constitutional Council, France’s highest court, must then review the approved text before the Constitution can be amended.

The government’s controversial proposal basically smacks of an anachronistic throwback to the punishment by exile and banishment meted out in the Middle Ages. More importantly it raises fundamental questions about sovereign and unalienable rights of citizens in a free and democratic society and the equality of treatment of all citizens under the law. In a country that has bequeathed to the world a potent national ethos based on the principles of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité, such a controversial proposal has obviously caused profound division.

Citizenship is an unalienable and an absolute right. Conscious that stripping anyone condemned for terrorist acts of his citizenship and rendering him stateless is legally untenable, Prime Minister (PM) Manuel Walls has reassured that France would not make anyone stateless. Although the proposed legislation tabled by the French PM makes no reference to dual citizenship, the inference is that the stripping of citizenship or the rights associated with it would in practice apply only to those French-born citizens having dual nationalities.

Such a disputed approach discriminates among French citizens in the teeth of the principle of égalité. In short, why should someone of foreign/migrant descent but French-born not have as solid and durable a claim to his French citizenship than his French neighbour descending from a long French lineage, if they are both condemned of terrorism. Such a step could deepen the sense of alienation already prevalent among the communities of people of migrant descent residing in enclaves suffering from lack of opportunities. In any case, everyone agrees that the controversial proposal is purely symbolic and would certainly not deter hardened and indoctrinated terrorists.

In reality, only one of the 9 perpetrators of the Paris attacks and only two of the 15 terrorists involved in attacks in France since 2011 held dual citizenship and would have been affected by the proposed bill. What if all French born citizens of migrant parents decide to only keep their French nationality?

France is well geared to fight the threat of terrorism.  However, many also believe that the government should refrain from any action likely to gratify terrorist movements, especially those targeting France, with any cause for celebration, be it military, political, diplomatic or symbolic. The harshest punishments must be meted out to convicted terrorists. The best response is to deal with terrorism firmly and robustly with the aim of destroying it.

Unlike Mauritius, where those elected by the people seldom show dissent against the party line on fundamental democratic principles or those relating to the public interest, French MPs and diverse voices in France have strongly contested the proposal to strip the citizenship of condemned terrorists. The angst against European nationals of migrant origin being principally behind the terrorist attacks in Paris is such that the proposal has received strong popular support according to polls. It has however profoundly divided the Socialist Party as well as the Republicans.  Most of the Ecologists and the Communist MPs voted against the proposed bill.

The stance of French MPs across the political divide against proposals which are not perceived to be in line with the French ethos even in the extreme case of ruthless terrorists responsible for the 13 November 2015 carnage attests to the solid values and ethics prevalent in such mature democracies such as France.

Presidential monarchs

Against such a backdrop, questions are therefore being legitimately asked on the rationale of a Socialist President championing such a controversial and flawed proposal which is at loggerheads with the national ethos, the more so as it is unlikely to improve national security.

Is the strong French Presidential system ushered in 1958 to replace the parliamentary system, which conferred the President with powers unequalled in the democratic world a causative factor?  For example, in too many cases on the African continent, omnipotent Presidents puffed up with their own self importance are either rooted to power as in Zimbabwe or bent on using all sorts of devious stratagems to bend the rules and circumvent restrictions or limitations of mandates or age enshrined in their countries’ constitutions to remain in power. This is currently the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Burundi, Rwanda and Congo-Brazaville, etc. Even in Mauritius there were those in 2014 who misguidedly wanted to be king. Does the Presidential system spawn the new all-powerful ‘monarchs’ and Animal Farm Napoleons of our time? Have we come full circle?

Thank goodness we opted for and stuck to our Parliamentary democracy in Mauritius.

Even the most structured and advanced democracies are exposed to proposals and events which test their seminal values and their capacity to uphold their national ethos and principles even in the most complex and trying circumstances. France, Europe and the major democracies of the world not only have to successfully pass the tests of such difficult events and be on top at all times but also remain resolute bulwarks against any drift from their core values.

* Published in print edition on 12 February 2016

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