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France: Fifth Republic (1959-)

Last modified: 2005-04-02 by ivan sache
Keywords: fifth republic | de gaulle (charles) |
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[France]by Željko Heimer

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The birth of the Fifth Republic

The new Constitution was elaborated by the 39 members (16 from the Assembly, 10 from the Council of the Republic and 13 appointed by the government) of the Comité consultatif constitutionnel. The proposal was officially presented on 4 September 1958 on Place de la République in Paris. On 28 September 1958, the proposal was massively approved by 72.95% of the voters. Algeria and all of the African colonies, except Guinea, also approved the proposal.

Source: C. Semnoz. La Ve République, de 1958 à nos jours. Histoire de France Illustrée (Larousse, 1988)

The main author of the Constitution is probably Michel Debré, who said: 'When De Gaulle was not happy with something in the 1958 Consitution, he told me: This is yours!, when he was happy with something else, he told me: this is mine!.'

Ivan Sache, 9 July 2001

The Constitution of 1958

According to the Constitution, the President of the Republic shall be the defender of the national independence and assume the continuity of the state. He shall be elected by a college of 80,000 members, including Parliament Members, General Councillors, Mayors and Municipal Councillors. He shall appoint the Prime Minister, can dissolve the Assembly, and canvass the people's opinion by referendum. In case of a serious crisis, the President can receive the full powers after consultation of the Constitutional Council. This controversial article 16 was evidently motivated by the Algerian situation. The government shall be appointed by the Prime Minister after consultation of the President of the Republic. The government shall be responsible, i.e., the Parliament can defeat it. In order to suppress the régime des partis, the Deputees shall no longer be elected according to the list system, but according to a two-round uninominal system and on a majority basis.

The presidential election was scheduled on 21 December 1958. De Gaulle obtained 78.5% of the votes, the Communist Marrane 13.1% and the Leftist Chatelet 8.4%.

On 12 September 1962, a press release by the Council of Ministers announced a constitutional referendum on the mode of election of the President of the Republic. The opposition claimed that the proposed election of the President by universal suffrage would remind the plebiscites of the Second Empire and increase excessively the personal powers of the President. On 28 October, 62.25% of the voters approved the amendment but 23% of the electors did not vote.

Presidential election according to this system took place in 1965, 1969, 1974, 1981, 1988, and 1995. The last one took place 2002, but Jacques Chirac was elected for five years instead of seven, according to an amendment to the Constitution approved by referendum in 2000.

Source: C. Semnoz. La Ve République, de 1958 à nos jours. Histoire de France Illustrée (Larousse, 1988)

Ivan Sache, 9 July 2001

The future of the Fifth Republic: Towards a Sixth Republic?

There are more and more debates about the need of a modernization of the political system and the creation of a Sixth Republic. The unexpected cohabitation periods, during which the President of the Republic faced a Prime Minister with opposed political ideas following general election lost by the President's party (First cohabitation (1986-1988), President F. Mitterrand [Socialist] vs. Prime Minister J. Chirac [Conservative]; second cohabitation (1993-1995), President F. Mitterrand [Socialist] vs. Prime Minister E. Balladur [Conservative]; third cohabitation (1997-2002), President J. Chirac [Conservative] vs. Prime Minister L. Jospin [Socialist] ) examplified some of the flaws of the Presidential system. The system had in fact been planned by De Gaulle to allow him to exercise a strong personal power in association with an allied Parliament, and Conservatives hardly believed they could lose the power before May 1981.

More recently, the Constitutional status of the President has been questionned because J. Chirac refused to testify upon request of judges concerning cases in which his party was involved, claiming that he would have been pleased to testify if his Presidential status had allowed it.

However, a dramatic revision of the Constitution and the proclamation of the Sixth Republic seems today very improbable.

Ivan Sache, 9 July 2001