Fall - 2013 France1

Published on October 8th, 2013


The French Fifth Republic: Against All Odds

By Håkon Tranvåg

Since the French Revolution in 1789, France has had five different republican systems. All of them have been the results of violent crises. The fifth and current one was an outcome of the Algerian crisis in the 1950’s. It withstood several assassinations attempts and rebellions, proving to be one the longest lasting and most stable political systems France has seen so far. In this article I seek to give a brief overview of how this happened.   

The First Republic began with the fall of King Louis XVI in 1792 and ended with Napoleon Bonaparte declaring himself emperor of the First French Empire in 1804. After Napoleon’s empire had ended, a period of monarchies followed, until the 1848 Revolution saw the birth of the Second Republic, paradoxically enough with the election of Napoleon’s own nephew, Napoleon III, as its first president.

An apple never falls to far from the tree, and within just four years he had made himself emperor of the French Second Empire. The Second Empire collapsed in 1870 with the catastrophic war against the Prussians, which the French soundly lost. That same year, the Third Republic was created.

This would prove to be the hitherto longest lasting of the French republics. But although the Third Republic had a long life, it was on the other hand quite unstable: In the period from 1929 to 1939, there were 18 different governments. The Third Republic ended in 1940 with the German occupation of France.

The Fourth Republic was established after the war and officially put in place in 1946. It was in many respects a revival of the Third Republic, and thus suffered from a lot of of the same problems. But more acutely, it was confronted with the collapse of the French Colonial Empire, and in particular the Algerian War, which began in 1954.

The Fourth Republic had successfully lead France to an economic recovery after WWII, but proved itself incapable of resolving the conflict in Algeria. As the French generals and army section stationed in there feared that the government in Paris would abandon them and strike a deal with the Algerian independence movement, the FLN, they took control over the French administration and forces in Algeria, and issued a poorly hidden threat of a coming coup d’état: If the French government failed to give them the support they needed, they “could not predict the army’s reaction.” They then followed this up by taking control of Corsica to force the president to the negotiation table.

The generals wanted the former leader of the Free French Forces, Charles de Gaulle, as new head of government to ensure support for the war. It was now a straightforward threat: If de Gaulle wasn’t given the position they would land paratroopers in Paris and seize the city.

The president’s hands were tied, and de Gaulle was named head of government. In June 1958 the Parliament dissolved itself and the constitution. De Gaulle now led the forging a new constitution, and by the end of the summer the result was presented to the French people for a referendum. On September 28th a vast majority approved of the constitution, thus commencing the Fifth Republic. In December that year de Gaulle became it’s first elected president.

The main problem with the two preceding republics had been that the executive branch was too weak. Governments struggled to achieve a majority; they relied on coalitions and alliances, and were often forced to resign. Further, the political parties were poorly organised, thus making the political game even more complicated.

De Gaulle

De Gaulle was well aware of all this, and keen to change it. The Fifth Republic was to have a strong executive power. The Prime minister and his cabinet would be less dependent on the Parliament, but more importantly, the President was given considerable authorities: He would be elected by an electoral college and not by the people directly, he appointed the Prime minister, could rule by decree in times of crisis and he could dissolve Parliament and call for new elections. Also, the President would have considerable control of the country’s foreign and defence policy.

However, de Gaulle had a problem: As the leader of the Free French Forces during WWII, he had promised the native inhabitants of the French colonies – then controlled by the Vichy regime – that he would fight for their independence after the war if they helped fight the Germans.

After the war, many Algerians were waiting for de Gaulle to fulfil this promise. But in the first decade after the war, he lacked political power and was thus unable to do so. Now though, he did have that power, but mostly because the French generals in Algeria had helped him win it, and they, on their hand, expected de Gaulle to support their efforts of keeping Algeria French.

De Gaulle decided to pursue a line that gradually gave more independence to the Algerians. This was met with strong resistance from the French communities and military in Algeria who again rebelled and attempted a coup d’état.

In 1961, at the height of the crisis, de Gaulle narrowly avoided the coup by using his power of decree to remove several officers from their posts while securing support from the army and the public in mainland France. The generals, though, did not give in without a fight. As things were turning to the favour of the pro-independence movement, they formed a secret underground army, the OAS. In the final years of the Algerian war there were three attempts on de Gaulle’s life and more successful assassinations against other high officials in the French administration by the OAS.

A French Pied-noir in Algeria.

De Gaulle did not yield. A referendum giving more self-determination to Algeria turned out in his favour, and in 1962, de Gaulle was able to settle a peace-agreement with the FLN. He then proceeded to hold a new referendum that finally gave Algeria its longed freedom.

In 1962 there was also an important change in the functions of the Fifth Republic: After a referendum presented by de Gaulle passed, the president was now to be elected directly by the people. This gave the republic a more democratic groundwork, but there was a strong concern that it was first and foremost the support for de Gaulle personally that kept the republic going, not support for the system itself.

On the political right, there was a strong loyalty to de Gaulle, while the left fiercely opposed the republic. Francois Mitterrand of the Socialist Party called the Fifth Republic de Gaulle’s “permanent coup d’état.” As de Gaulle’s support slowly began to fade, concerns were growing of what would happen when he eventually would have to resign. Would the Fifth Republic be strong enough to make it on its own?

De Gaulle gradually lost support through the sixties, and in May 1968 he faced real threat. The uprisings that year threatened to overthrow him and the government, but de Gaulle managed to survive, again by rallying support to him personally. But later that same year, he lost a somewhat unimportant referendum, and decided to resign. He could not continue to go on from one marginal victory to another.

But de Gaulle’s resignation was not the end of the Fifth Republic. It became evident that the support for the republic among the populace was stronger than many had thought. The system survived de Gaulle’s fall, and steadily established itself through the coming decades. The final evidence for this came in 1981, when no other than François Mitterrand became president.

The Fifth Republic was undoubtedly consolidated: The majority of the people supported it, the elites on the right had gradually changed their loyalty towards the Republic, and the left, who since the Republic’s beginning had strongly opposed it, became benign partners in the system now that they were at the helm (in becoming president, Mitterrand admitted he had been wrong in his criticism).

The Fifth Republic had managed to survive war and the fall of its chief architect. However, the modern version is not what the republic anno 1958 was. There have been 24 revisions of the original constitution of 1958, affecting two thirds of its articles. As mentioned, the president is now elected directly, not by an electoral college. Further, one term is not seven years as it was originally, but five, and the executive branch’s power and authority are now much more balanced by Parliament and the Constitutional Council.

It has proven to be one of the most stable and longest lasting political systems in France. But today, criticism is mounting both from the left and the right that the Fifth Republic is out of date and too authoritarian for a modern democracy. Is a Sixth Republic coming, or will the Fifth be able to adapt itself for a new era?


Further reading:

Berenson, Edward, Vincent Duclert, Christophe Prochasson (ed.) (2011). The French Republic – History, Values, Debates. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.

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