Italy’s French Temptation

FLORENCE – Italy is once again being gulled by the false hope that if it can just “fix” its institutions, its politics will normalize. This time, it is the French model that is enticing Italy’s leaders.

Since February’s inconclusive general election, Italian lawmakers have managed to agree on only one thing: the reelection of 88-year-old President Giorgio Napolitano, which makes him the first two-term president since Italy abolished the monarchy in 1946. The main center-left and center-right parties that supported Napolitano – despite the protests of Beppe Grillo and his anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which won a quarter of the parliamentary vote – hope that he can oversee the creation of a broad-based coalition government.

But addressing Italy’s myriad institutional weaknesses – which have led to ungovernability, endemic fragmentation, disfattismo (defeatism), and widespread public frustration with the establishment – will require an overhaul of the country’s political system. Given that France overcame similar weaknesses and political deadlock with the creation of the Fifth Republic, which includes a robust executive led by a powerful president, the French model seems like an effective one to follow. Indeed, at first glance, pursuing such a change in Italy appears simple.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Italians admire France’s Fifth Republic. After all, its governments – unlike those in Italy – have been remarkably stable and relatively durable, lasting 643 days, on average. Moreover, no one party or figure has dominated French politics for too long, with power alternating regularly between parties of the left and the right, at least since François Mitterrand’s first victory in 1981.

But, for many Italians, the French political system’s most attractive feature is that the president is the true head of the executive – and, since the presidential and legislative terms were aligned in 2000, that authority has run for five years at a time. To Italian lawmakers, mired in stalemate and indecision, the French executive’s considerable influence over the parliament is appealing.

That influence is bolstered by the electoral rules’ inherent bias in favor of powerful parties. Indeed, no electoral system creates a greater vote-seat distortion than France’s two-round majoritarian system. For example, in 2012, the Socialists obtained nearly 50% of the seats in the National Assembly, despite having won only 29% of the vote in the first round. The right-wing RPR-UDF coalition did even better in 1993, when it won 38.5% of the vote in the first round but obtained an astonishing 82% of the seats. In France, smaller parties can gain parliamentary seats only if they manage to negotiate a pre-election agreement with one of the major parties to secure for them some constituencies.

One could argue that this system facilitates more efficient governance, and thus could potentially save Italy from its debilitating gridlock. But it is difficult to see how it is good for democracy. Before becoming overly enamored of French institutions, Italians should consider what the French think of their own system.

In fact, the French are extremely frustrated with their country’s politics, particularly with their presidents. This dissatisfaction does not reflect a failure of François Hollande, whose approval rating stands at only 26% one year into his presidential term; his two immediate predecessors, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, also left office in disgrace.

According to Eurobarometer data collected over the last two decades, Italy’s political system, its leaders, and its democratic institutions have the lowest level of citizen satisfaction among the first 15 European Union countries. But France is a close second. Likewise, France is second only to Italy when it comes to the desire to reform and restructure its political institutions.

At the end of the day, there is no institutional reform that could miraculously “save” Italy. While a semi-presidential system like France’s could enable Italy to suppress symmetric bicameralism and reform the worst aspects of its electoral law (known as porcellum, or “the crap law”), thereby improving governability, it would create as many problems as it would solve.

French history demonstrates that excessive presidential power is likely to create an almighty and, at times, politically feckless executive, alongside a weak parliament that chronically under-represents a significant proportion of the population. Beyond the incantatory formulas, Italians should reflect carefully on the desirability of adopting such a system.