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French Fifth Republic


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The Fifth Republic was formed in response to a military rebellion in Algeria, in May 1958, which was directed more against the policies of the government in Paris than against the regime. Facing a protracted nationalist insurrection across the Mediterranean, the army wanted guarantees that Algeria would remain French, while opinion in France favoured a negotiated peace. The Fourth Republic could no longer command respect or authority and a crisis was avoided only by the appointment of General de Gaulle as Premier, on the understanding he would present a new constitution to the electorate for approval. The constitution of the Fifth Republic provided for a strong President whose powers, however, were shared with a Prime Minister answerable to a majority in the National Assembly. In accordance with de Gaulle's long‐held views, Parliament was confined within a strictly legislative role with its jealously guarded sovereignty heavily circumscribed, while the government retained the initiative throughout the legislative process. The constitution was nevertheless ambivalent about the role of the President in the new system, and vague about his relationship with the Prime Minister and the government. The President appointed (and could presumably remove) the Prime Minister, and de Gaulle soon indicated that foreign affairs, defence, and Algeria were his own ‘reserved domain’. Moreover, the end of the Algerian war in 1962 saw a clear shift towards presidential rule, with the President no longer chosen by electoral college but elected directly by popular vote.

In many respects the system was actually less presidential under de Gaulle (1958–69) than under his successors, if only because of the General's reluctance to involve himself in routine administration and domestic policy‐making, which he entrusted to his Prime Ministers, who, in turn, commanded the support of the parliamentary majority. Later Presidents have intervened much more extensively. Presidential power was most in evidence from 1981 to 1986, when François Mitterrand, former leader of the Socialist Party, enjoyed unquestioning support from his lieutenants in the government, as well as commanding a disciplined Socialist majority in the National Assembly. Nevertheless, while the scope for presidential intervention has increased considerably and the office has become ever more personalized, there are obvious limits to executive discretion in a country with entrenched liberal traditions and powerful autonomous institutions. Even before 1986 and cohabitation, Mitterrand had come increasingly to delegate responsibilities to the Prime Minister and the government and that trend has since continued. The wide‐ranging emergency powers conferred on the President by Article 16 of the constitution were used only once, by de Gaulle. The provision for popular consultation by referendum was invaluable while the Algerian war lasted but has since proved a two‐edged weapon. De Gaulle was forced to resign after the defeat of the 1969 referendum on regional powers, while the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht treaty produced a narrow majority in favour but at the cost of revealing the extent of the country's divisions on the issue.

Unlike its predecessors, the Fifth Republic has provided governmental stability and continuity of policy, notwithstanding the student and labour unrest in May 1968, the strains of cohabitation, and the economic problems of the 1970s. While the popularity of political leaders and governments has fluctuated widely, France's present institutions have enjoyed a legitimacy unprecedented since the Revolution. The domestic consensus on foreign policy, forged by de Gaulle, survives to the present, with remarkably few modifications. There is little sign of the immobilisme associated with the two previous regimes as governments have moved to tackle some of the country's most intractable problems. The Fifth Republic has seen the consolidation and completion of the Common Market, the modernization of French agriculture, industrial reform and economic liberalization, administrative decentralization, and significant changes in the educational system.

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