Advance and Retreat

TIME Europe Magazine: Advance and Retreat — Mar. 27, 2006

The headline last Friday in the French business newspaper Les Echos: “Is France ungovernable?” In countries where democracy is a recent innovation, street protests and the ballot box coexist as rival sources of legitimacy: People vote, but also demand the right to reverse the outcome later if they change their minds. Thailand and the Philippines both have been wracked by protests in recent weeks by people demanding that the leaders they elected go.

France is hardly a novice at democracy. But, forged by the Revolution of 1789 and their national myths, the French still embrace rebellion as a favorite political tool — even when, as is currently the case, the aim is to resist, not promote, change. Street protesters in France won’t bring down an elected president — as protestors in Manila did in 2001 and are seeking to do again now. But they can make or break a wannabe.

“Disorder, that is the disease of the French,” said Charles de Gaulle, who tried to keep the malady in check with the establishment in 1958 of the quasi-monarchical presidential system that is still in place. “I don’t believe we will ever manage to cure it.”

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