Why Is France in Its Fifth Republic?

An explainer on the many evolutions of the country’s government

The Tennis Court Oath in June 1789 marked the unification of the French Estates-General, who came to call themselves the National Assembly. In the oath, they vowed not to separate until they established a constitution. (Jacques-Louis David/Wikimedia Commons)
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The French presidential election is upon us, and with it comes another opportunity for a populist leader to drastically change the course of the European Union. Just as Theresa May of the Conservative Party took over in the United Kingdom, but Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party failed to win his presidential bid in Austria, the French election is just one more showdown between the competing ideologies of nationalism and globalism. French citizens will cast their firsts vote for one of eleven candidates on April 23. None of the candidates are expected to win an outright majority, which means a run-off election will be held on May 7 between the two candidates who win the most votes. At this point, polls show a close race between Marine Le Pen (a far-right leader who plans to ban all legal immigration, take France out of the EU, and has ties to neo-Nazis), Emmanuel Macron (a centrist and former economy minister) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (a far-left candidate who promises to raise the minimum wage and limit the work week to 35 hours).

While the world waits to see who will be the next leader of the Fifth Republic, some Americans may be wondering—what’s a fifth republic and what were the four others? To help guide you through the intricacies of French political history, we’ve assembled a breakdown of the previous democratic governments in the land of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The Current Government

The Fifth Republic is the name of France’s current government. It began in 1958, after a coup at the hands of the French military in colonial Algeria convinced officials in Paris to dissolve Parliament. Fearing that the military could extend their control beyond Africa, the government called former general Charles de Gaulle out of retirement to hold the country together, as he did during the post-liberation years of World War II. To do so, he crafted a new constitution. Under this government, the president has substantial power, holds a term of five years (it was originally seven) and, following a change to the constitution in 1962, is directly elected by the French people. (de Gaulle held the position until 1968.)

This system of government differs dramatically from previous republics, which relied on parliamentary rule. In the Fifth Republic, the head-of-state appoints a prime minister to lead the Parliament (which is comprised of a Senate and a National Assembly), controls the armed forces and France’s nuclear arsenal, can dissolve Parliament, and can hold referendums on laws or constitutional changes.

One caveat to the president’s powers is the possibility of “cohabitation,” when the president is from a different political party than the majority of politicians in the parliament. In these cases, the president must choose a prime minister who will be accepted by the parliament, and the two share powers of governing more equitably.

The First Republic

It all began with the price of bread—and dozens of other social, political and economic factors. 1789 marked the start of the French Revolution, when women marched on Versailles, citizens stormed the Bastille, and the monarchy was dethroned. Out of the revolution was born the First Republic, organized in 1792 with a National Convention made up of several political parties, including the Montagnards, who drew support from the bourgeoisie in Paris, and the Girondins, who wanted a national government chosen by all French citizens, not just those in Paris. But the First Republic was plagued by violence and upheaval. For nearly ten years, the Republic’s Committee of Public Safety, whose members included the infamous Maximilien Robespierre, executed thousands of people and arrested over 200,000 to get rid of counterrevolutionaries. The bloody period came to be known as the Reign of Terror.

Amidst the chaos of organizing and ruling the fledgling republic, a military officer named Napoleon Bonaparte rose through the ranks. After successful quelling a royalist riot in Paris in 1795, Napoleon was given command of the French army. He launched a campaign in Italy, invaded Egypt, took even more territory in Europe, and by 1804 had crowned himself emperor, ending France’s First Republic.

The Second Republic

After several decades of Napoleonic rule, then rule by various Bourbon monarchs, French citizens held numerous protests and uprisings, in part because of an economic crisis that continued to cause a decline in the living conditions for the lower class. A coalition of politicians created a second constitution and a new republic in 1848 after the fall of King Louis-Philippe. But none other than Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Napoleon III, came to be elected president. During his tenure he enacted many democratic reforms, including abolishing slavery in all French territories, granting enormous press freedom, creating social programs for the unemployed, and extending universal suffrage. But like his uncle before him, Napoleon III wasn’t satisfied with the power that came with being president. By late 1851 he orchestrated a coup and in 1852 a new constitution gave him dictatorial powers, thus ushering in a nearly 20-year-long Second Empire.

The Third Republic

The length of the Third Republic—70 years—was essentially a happy accident. After Napoleon III dragged France into a disastrous war with Prussia and was captured, the exiled leader fled to England. The Third Republic was meant to be something like a caretaker republic until monarchists decided which royal family to put in charge, but then it kept chugging along. That doesn’t mean the political situation was totally stable; there were 18 different governments between 1929 and 1939 alone. But even with the political seesawing, the country generally thrived. Railroads snaked across the country, the government separated church and state by law, and France acquired ever more colonial territory in North and West Africa, Madagascar and Indochina.

But the republic teetered in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish officer was wrongly convicted of German espionage. The debate over Dreyfus’s innocence divided the country, and coincided with a rise of nationalism that marked both world wars. The start of World War II, and Germany’s successful invasion of France, put an end to the Third Republic in 1940.

The Fourth Republic

Both world wars were over, the Great Depression was solidly in the past, and France was free from the puppet Vichy government. So what could possibly go wrong in the new era of peace and European unity? A lot, as it turns out. The country’s fourth stab at a republic featured a mostly ceremonial president with a powerful legislature, but the politicians were elected on a system of proportional representation, “resulting in so many parties having seats that it was difficult to create a stable coalition government,” writes political scientist Nathan Richmond. The average cabinet only lasted six months, and there were 16 prime ministers in the 12 years between 1946 and 1958.

What drove the government to its breaking point was the Algeria crisis. The war for independence had already been brewing for several years, and European colonists in Algeria—there were more than 1 million, and they controlled the territory’s government—worried France would abandon them if Algeria won independence. The French Army in Algeria slowly consolidated power, and by May 1958 had complete control over the territory. The government in Paris, fearful of a cascade of military coups across the empire, conceded to the army’s demands. The government dissolved itself and brought in Charles de Gaulle to rewrite a new constitution, ushering in the Fifth Republic.

Will the Fifth Republic last?

Political scientists and scholars have been trying to answer this question since the Fifth Republic was first founded, and it’s impossible to do more than make educated guesses. Since de Gaulle first wrote out its constitution, there have been 24 revisions of it, which have affected 2/3 of its articles. So far the constitution’s flexibility and the force of the past presidents has kept the Fifth afloat. But with presidential candidate Mélenchon leading a march for the “sixth republic” and Marine Le Pen talking about radically reshaping France’s domestic policies, there’s no telling what might happen in the coming months.

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