The French Don’t Understand Impeachment

The U.S. Senate has acquitted Donald Trump on Wednesday after a long impeachment trial, a little-known process in France.
© Leah Millis/Reuters

For the third time in about fifty years, the French are discovering the American procedure of the impeachment of the president of the United States: Richard Nixon in 1974, Bill Clinton in 1998, and now Donald Trump. One Democrat, two Republicans. As before, the dominant reaction in France is one of perplexity and incomprehension. Commentators express surprise that an acting president is reproached for his cynicism and abuse of power – are cynicism and abuse of power not to be expected of politicians? In Europe this is, to varying degrees, their habitual behavior. This is the case in the United States, no doubt, but in America there exists a red line that must not be crossed called the Constitution, a universal norm called the rule of law, and a strict separation between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A president caught crossing this line, failing to respect these norms, and trespassing upon these powers has committed a crime.

In France, people conclude immediately that these impeachment procedures are partisan maneuvers, politics as usual and nothing more. Yes and no. It is true that a Democratic House of Representatives has impeached Donald Trump, just as previously a Republican House impeached the Democrat Bill Clinton. But one cannot reduce this procedure to its partisan dimension. As Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives has said, the House had no choice but to accuse Donald Trump from the moment it was clear that the president had violated the Constitution, not only by abusing his power in his relations with Ukraine, but more still by obstructing Congress’s inquiry. This second accusation is more serious than the first – which is somewhat debatable – since it threatens the constitutional principle of the separation of powers.

In this impeachment procedure, much is said of Ukraine, but the problem lies elsewhere. The case was exactly the same during the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Of course, taking advantage of an intern in the Oval Office of the White House was morally deplorable, but the French are rarely shocked by their presidents’ sexual escapades. Americans are a little more so, although John Kennedy’s reputation has remained intact after the revelations about his rampant womanizing (this, it has to be said, was before #MeToo). But it must be remembered that it was not for his sexual behavior that Clinton was impeached by the House, before being acquitted by the Senate where he had a majority; it was because of his denials. His legally unpardonable crime was to have lied to the Congress of the United States and to the people, denying any sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. For this he had to apologize.

Richard Nixon was also convicted of perjury for having covered up the burglary of the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington; he chose to resign in order to avoid being unseated. Here again, European and American norms are not identical. In Europe would a politician be thrown out of office for having lied? The benches in our assemblies would be emptied.

Even when it does not lead to a conviction, impeachment is therefore a constant warning against any lapse from the constitutional order on which American democracy is founded. This warning does not concern the president alone, since similar procedures apply at all levels of administration, whether federal, state, or local. In American democracy, no one is above the law and the Constitution is sacred; Supreme Court Justices continue to examine and interpret it as holy scripture.

This sacralization of law is something that must be understood. The Founding Fathers of the United States were obsessed by the threat of despotism; they stopped at nothing to prevent the despotism prevailing in Europe from arising in America. And they succeeded: Even Donald Trump, whom it is easy to imagine being tempted by the abuse of power, must content himself with talking. He is like Gulliver, tied down by the Lilliputians of Congress and the courts, unable to act on his desires. The Constitution also protects minorities against the majority – even a majority of voters. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, enumerates citizens’ rights against the state in order to prevent any majority from abusing its power.

In practice, the American Constitution has taken on an additional virtue. It represents an immutable contract between the state and citizens. And among citizens themselves, it represents the rule of law, which allows diverse peoples who have come from the four corners of the earth to live together under one roof. Thanks to the Constitution and the effects of its application, Americans are citizens, while many Europeans are but subjects of their governments. This is what impeachment means, and what is underestimated in France.

Editorial published in the February 2020 issue of France-Amérique.