Towards a French Sixth Republic?

PARIS – Nearly 50 years after the creation of the Fifth Republic by General Charles de Gaulle, Nicolas Sarkozy wants to change France’s fundamental institutions. An expert council will send him its proposals by November 1.

Whereas British democracy is deeply rooted despite its supposedly “unwritten” constitution, and the US constitution has been amended only 26 times since 1787, France has redrafted its constitution 15 times since 1789. Only the Third Republic (1875-1940) lasted longer than the current Fifth Republic.

Established quickly in 1958 by de Gaulle in the midst of the Algerian crisis, tthe institutions of the Fifth Republic came under fire from the very first day. The antagonism that much of the left felt toward the Fifth Republic, which was tailored to fit de Gaulle’s outsized figure, faded only in 1981, when François Mitterrand, one of de Gaulle’s most vocal opponents, benefited from the power vested in the presidency.

Since then, a consensus has emerged in favor of the 1958 constitutional structure, because it has provided France with the strong executive it had always lacked. De Gaulle’s constitution has also proved flexible enough to allow France to overcome several crises – Algeria, May 1968, de Gaulle’s resignation, changes of government from right to left, and antagonism between left-wing presidents and right-wing prime ministers or vice-versa (“la cohabitation”), as occurred in 1986, 1993, and 1997.