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.