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French Renew Their Interest in U.S. Constitution, Political Institutions

March 19, 1987|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — For almost a century, few people in France bothered to read Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America."

Tocqueville had once been popular. As a young liberal, he had spent nine months in the United States, in 1831 and 1832, and had excited French readers with his analysis of the vigor of the new democratic institutions in the New World.

American readers were startled as well. His perceptions were so insightful that American scholars embraced the work and never stopped reading it and citing it as a classic of American political theory. But at home, Tocqueville passed out of favor and interest.

In the past decade, however, there has been a revival. A publisher is putting out a complete edition of his works, including his letters, this year. A new jumbo paperback containing "Democracy in America" and other Tocqueville writings is in the bookstores. A popular literary magazine recently devoted an entire issue to him.

He was even quoted at length a few days ago in a newspaper column on traffic accidents. The writer cited Tocqueville in explaining the difference between the orderly, safe car drivers of the United States and the anarchic, dangerous drivers of France.

"Tocqueville Was Right," the headline said.

The Tocqueville revival is not accidental. France is going through an era of good feelings about the United States and enormous curiosity about all things American. It is obvious to the most casual visitor that the French are fascinated by American fast food, jeans, movies, pop music, novelists, computers and business techniques.

What is less obvious is how deep this goes. Even French intellectuals and politicians are drawn to the United States. They are looking more and more closely at the U.S. Constitution and American political institutions and wondering whether the American way might offer some lessons for France.

The U.S. Supreme Court may not have as deep a hold on the French imagination as American hamburgers, but its hold is still significant. It is not always easy to see this, though.

"The French are very proud of their political system," said Laurent Cohen-Tanugi, a French lawyer who knows both countries well, "and they don't like to mention when they borrow something. But sometimes they do admit it."

A few days ago, for example, in a break with tradition, the French equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission decided to hold open instead of closed hearings for applicants seeking ownership of television channels. The French press described the hearings as "a l ' americaine," and meant it as a compliment.

Gone are the days of 30 years ago when intellectuals applauded the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre for denouncing the United States as a rabid, fascist country that had to be removed from leadership of the Western world and isolated.

The French are even helping to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. In January, the French Assn. of American Studies organized a closely followed symposium on the Constitution. In February, parliamentary affairs minister Andre Rossinot led a French delegation to Washington to commemorate the anniversary.

The new American influence is reflected in the continual debate in France over the authority of the French Constitutional Council, a body of nine justices that rules on the constitutionality of laws enacted by the National Assembly. Critics as well as defenders of the council cite the U.S. Supreme Court to bolster their case.

For example, Francois Goguel, a former member of the Constitutional Council, attacked his successors for overturning a recently enacted law.

"The notion of government by judges strikes me as very questionable," he told a French newspaper. "It comes to us from the United States . . . and it is a paralysis of government by judges."

"The French understand poorly how American political institutions work," Loic Philip, a professor of law at the University of Aix-Marseille, told the January symposium, "but that doesn't prevent them from referring to them constantly. We cite the U.S. Supreme Court far more than the West German Constitutional Tribune or the Italian Constitutional Court, even though they are much more like our Constitutional Council."

Yet, at heart, there may be great similarities between the French and American institutions. Discussing the French council and the American court in a recent interview, Cohen-Tanugi, who has written a book comparing the American and French political systems, said, "The idea is the same, and the political philosophy is the same."

French scholars believe that France, while not copying the U.S. Supreme Court, has in recent years taken the philosophy of "constitutionalism" from the United States--the idea that there is a higher authority in a democracy than the majority that happens to control a government at any particular time.

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