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Debate: Why France Needs The Fifth Republic

The Oasis Reporters

September 30, 2023





French citizens celebrate Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the country’s 2017 presidential elections.
Lorie Shaull/Flickr, CC BY

Emmanuel Destenay, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

France’s current constitution is its fifth, and it’s built for stability – literally. Established in 1958 after the government collapsed in the throes of the Algerian War, the new constitution featured a president with considerable powers. That made the country’s governments more stable – a welcome change from the Third and Fourth Republics – but it’s also left opposition parties consistently frustrated.


There have long been calls for greater proportionality in the National Assembly – then-President Francois Mitterrand heeded them in 1986, albeit in an attempt to prevent defeat in the legislative elections. In the last decade they’ve grown louder, however, with parties on the left and right insisting that the composition of the assembly should more closely mirror the results of presidential elections.


In 2022, both the far right (Rassemblement National) and the far left (La France Insoumise) successfully sent a staggering number of representatives to the assembly. However unprecedented, this result only confirmed that any political party needs local anchorage and time to climb the constitutional ladder. But for La France Insoumise, the Fifth Republic – regardless of the stability it has brought to the country – should be abolished and replaced by a new constitution that, to put it in a nutshell, strangely resembles that of the Third Republic.


Taming executive power, ensuring political stablity


In a lecture titled “France: Politics, Power, and Protest” given at University College Dublin, I strove to explain to undergraduate students that the successive régimes stemmed from both a willingness to tame the executive power and a quest to ensure political stability. The Third Republic (1870–1940) modernised the country and implemented state laws that schooled multiple generations into becoming citizens. It was not without flaws: between 1876 and 1940, 101 cabinets came and went, essentially due to parliamentary instability and a total absence of authority within the executive power.


France’s defeat in 1940 finished off the Third Republic and eventually led to the Vichy Régime. The Fourth Republic only lasted from 1946 to 1958, yet paved the way for European integration. The war in Algeria convinced the authorities of the time, in particular Charles de Gaulle, that a new system of governance was needed, and the Fifth Republic was born.


Out of self-respect perhaps, the French Revolution has always been taught to secondary and high-school pupils as an ethnocentric turning point, completely disconnected from foreign experiences. Before and in the aftermath of the revolution, however, an entire generation of would-be revolutionaries looked toward the United States. Concepts such as checks and balances, bicameral system, and the centralisation of the decision-making process in the hands of the legislative power intrigued minds in Europe. Prominent French intellectuals regularly met with the thinkers behind these concepts. Thomas Jefferson, who served as minister plenipotentiary for France (1785–1789), was befriended by Condorcet and Mirabeau. In this way, acquaintances and networks between American and French élites fed the revolution.


Later, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in 1835, confirmed in French political thought the image of the United States as an appropriate governmental system where the separation of powers – an idea heavily influenced by the thinking of political philosopher Montesquieu – to ensure personal liberties to American citizens.


Looking to Germany and the UK


Today, when finding fault with France’s institutions, the systems of neighbouring countries such as Germany and Britain are often brought up. The comparison is not apt, however, for British and German parliamentary systems do not meet France’s standards for process and governance. And while such systems succeed in Britain and Germany, France’s history has shown that it is a nation that regards political compromise as a sign of institutional weakness.


Further, it would be inconceivable for French taxpayers to accept the existence of a shadow president and watch a prime minister elected by indirect universal suffrage touring the capitals of Europe and negotiating bills and policies. Nothing today, save for unpopular reforms presented to parliament and Emmanuel Macron’s general unpopularity can justify overthrowing France’s constitution. On that point, Macron’s repeated use of the article 49.3 to ram the government’s retirement reform has comforted advocates of a “Sixth Republic”, who feel that the current constitution gives too much power to a single individual.


France’s current constitution consolidates the state, secures constitutional representations, and permits a coalition between the government and the president in times of crisis. It permits the executive power to react quickly, summon the National Assembly, and implement political responses when needed. Most importantly, it guarantees to the president the constitutional ability to act in the domestic sphere while leading the foreign policy of the country. All the mechanisms consolidate the three branches of power while permitting the president to participate both in domestic politics and represent France on the international scene.


But is this too much power? In 1964, then-député François Mitterrand published an essay declaring his opposition to the Fifth Republic, arguing that the institutions had been framed for a single leader, Charles de Gaulle. The title of Mitterrand’s book spoke for itself: The Permanent Coup d’État. When he was elected president in 1981, however, he accepted the role of presidential monarch after having so vehemently criticised it.


The flip side of power


Power is a precious gift, to be used with caution. While the Fifth Republic certainly confers great power to its presidents, and so draws political hatred and violence against them (rather than against the assembly), this system guarantees political stability. Calling for the establishment of new institutions at a time of social crisis and spreading populism is not productive. The optics also aren’t good: the image projected is that of modern revolutionaries, handsomely paid by the very institutions they wish to overthrow, cheering the idea that Emmanuel Macron could precipitate the fall of the Fifth Republic.


The strength of the Fifth Republic is that presidents can articulate a vision for the country. They can guide, define priorities, and pave the way for big projects. That was the case in 1975 when President Valérie Giscard d’Estaing and Minister for Health Simone Veil furthered women’s rights by legalising abortion. So too was Mitterrand’s abolition of the death penalty in 1981 and Francois Holland’s legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2013.


Any French president is entitled to follow their political conscience. It is then up to parliament to debate the vision and initiatives and to the Constitutional Council to validate the final text.


Citizens across France certainly distrust Emmanuel Macron, but this need not entail an automatic rejection of the nation’s institutions. What France needs now is political stability and time to address issues that other European countries also face. And the present constitution positions the nation’s leadership for precisely that. France has tried many régimes in the past, and the Fifth Republic is effective – it is appropriate for the times in which we live and for democracy, and allows broad political representation and legitimacy. While it certainly places significant power into the hands of a single person, the constitution ensures that it is still up to the people to decide who shall govern their lives.The Conversation


Emmanuel Destenay, Research Fellow, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Greg Abolo

Blogger at The Oasis Reporters.

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