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France: Fifth Republic (1959-)

Last modified: 2002-10-12 by ivan sache
Keywords: fifth republic | tricolore | de gaulle | pompidou | giscard d'estaing | mitterrand | president |
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[France]by António Martins

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History and institutions of the Fifth Republic

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 Ré'publique 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.

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!.'

The Constitution of 1958

The President of the Republic should be the defender of the national independence and assume the continuity of the state. He should be elected by a college of 80,000 members, including Parliament Members, General Councillors, Mayors and Municipal Councillors. He should appoint the Prime Minister, could dissolve the Assembly, and canvass the people's opinion by referendum. In case of a serious crisis, the President could receive the full powers after consultation of the Consitutional Council. This controversial article 16 was evidently motivated by the Algerian situation. The government should be appointed by the Prime Minister after consultation of the President of the Republic. The government should be responsible, i.e. the Parliament could defeat it. In order to suppress the 'regime of the parties', the Deputees should 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 of 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 elections 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 a Consitution amendment approved by referendum in 2000.

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

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 legislative elections 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 weaknesses 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 allow it.

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

Ivan Sache, 9 July 2001

Presidential flags

Charles de Gaulle (1959-1969)

[Charles de Gaulle ?]by Ivan Sache

One source depicts de Gaulle's presidential standard as a tricolour with a red Cross of Lorraine in the white panel and with a golden fringe (Hans-Ulrich Herzog and Fritz Wolf, Flaggen und Wappen, Leipzig, 1966), while another source says he had his initials under the cross without informing about the colours of the letters (Pedersen [ped70]).

Jan Oskar Engene, 17 September1996

In the Archive of the National Navy Commissariat (Naval Supply Service) in Toulon, they present the presidential mark of President de Gaulle, with in the middle of the white stripe the letters C G in gold, and underneath the red Lorraine cross.

Armand Noël du Payrat , 30 June 1998

Georges Pompidou (1969-1974)

In the Fifth Republic it seems most presidents have made up their own designs. The only exception, as far as I know, was Georges Pompidou. He had his initials in yellow on a tricolour in proportions 30:33:37, according to Pedersen [ped70].

Jan Oskar Engene, 17 September1996

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (1974-1981)

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing replaced the initials with a lictors' fasces, which was often erroneously interpreted as a Petainist francisque.

Ivan Sache, 29 June 1998

François Mitterrand (1981-1995)

François Mitterrand replaced the initials FM in his first flag with a 'mix' of oak and olive-tree to symbolize Northern and Southern France.

Note that flags of both the President and the Prime Minister are erroneously depicted as rectangular in Talocci's French edition [tal93].

Ivan Sache, 29 June 1998

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