PARIS – Fifty years ago, General Charles de Gaulle seized power in France in what was, in essence, a legal coup d’etat. True, the General had been called upon and elected by the floundering French Parliament. But pressure from the French army, and rebellion in Algeria, did not give Parliament much of a choice. The ailing French republic’s political leaders hoped that de Gaulle could end the Algerian war, yet keep Algeria French. De Gaulle’s agenda was very different: he wanted to rewrite the Constitution and to found a new “Fifth Republic” for France.
The war in Algeria was, for de Gaulle, but another symptom of a dysfunctional state, an analysis that went back to his own experiences in 1940, when the French government proved unable to resist invasion by Hitler’s Germany. Only a strong leader, de Gaulle thought, could have avoided defeat.
In his memoirs, de Gaulle stated his preference for restoring the monarchy after the Liberation. But public opinion was not prepared for that, and the heirs to the French crown were not up to the task. The alternative was an elected monarch: the Fifth Republic’s Constitution, ratified 50 years ago this week, was crafted around that central principle.
What de Gaulle despised about the Fourth Republic was what he dubbed the “regime of the parties,” which put their own interests above the national interest. Only a king or an elected monarch could incarnate the national interest. Remarkable propagandist that he was, de Gaulle convinced the French that the Fourth Republic was a disaster – a canard that has remained common wisdom ever since.