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René Coty


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(b. Le Havre, 20 Mar. 1882; d. Le Havre, 22 Nov. 1962)

French; President of the Republic 1954–8 René Coty came from Normandy and was the son of the director of a private school. He studied law and philosophy at Caen University, fought in the First World War, and became a well-respected lawyer in Le Havre. He enjoyed a moderately successful career in local government before being elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1923 and to the Senate in 1935. Conservative without being reactionary, his political views were those of the centre-right and he attracted little attention before or during the war, although his refusal to co-operate with Vichy removed the stigma of his vote for Pétain in July 1940. Elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1945 and the National Assembly the following year, he returned to the Senate in 1948. He was Minister of Reconstruction in three governments in 1947–8, two of which were led by Robert Schuman, the architect of France's move towards European integration.

Coty's election as President of the Republic in December 1953 was a surprise and came after twelve exhausting ballots in which more obvious candidates had been eliminated. Chosen for his lack of political identity, he was little known to the general public, many of whom were scandalized by the image of political disunity revealed by the length of time it took to elect him. His manifest charm and integrity meant that he (and his wife, who died in 1955) became extremely popular in the country as a counterweight to the bitterness of party conflict. Yet his conception of the presidency stayed firmly within the constitutional limits set by the Fourth Republic. When the conflict in Algeria exploded into a full-scale crisis of regime authority in May 1958, his order to the French army commanders in Algiers to respect the civil power went unheeded. Thus his one decisive intervention was to tell the National Assembly that if they did not accept the return to power of de Gaulle he would resign. He handed over the presidency to de Gaulle in January 1959 and died three years later.

Coty's presidency was the last of a line which had begun with the election of Jules Grevy in 1879 and was defined by its lack of any independent political authority. He himself had always been in favour of constitutional measures to strengthen the power of government and it was this that led him to support de Gaulle in 1958. But his opposition, shortly before his death in 1962, to the direct election of the presidency showed how attached he was to the tradition of parliamentary republicanism which the Fifth Republic rejected.

Subjects: Social sciencesPolitics

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