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French Constitution of 1958

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French Constitution of 1958

French Republic
République française
Flag National emblem
Motto: "Liberté, égalité, fraternité"
(English: "Liberty, equality, fraternity")
Anthem: "File:La Marseillaise.ogg
Territory of the French Fifth Republic.
48°51.4′N 2°21.05′E / 48.8567°N 2.35083°E / 48.8567; 2.35083
Official languages French
Government Unitary semi-presidential constitutional republic
 -  President François Hollande
 -  Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault
Legislature Parliament
 -  Upper house Senate
 -  Lower house National Assembly
 -  Current constitution 4 October 1958
(55 years, 8 months, and 16 days ago) 
ISO 3166 code FR

The Fifth Republic is the fifth and current republican constitution of France, introduced on 4 October 1958.[1] The Fifth Republic emerged from the collapse of the French Fourth Republic, replacing the prior parliamentary government with a semi-presidential system. It is France's third-longest-enduring political regime, after the pre-Revolutionary Ancien Régime and the Third Republic.

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The trigger for the collapse of the French Fourth Republic was the Algiers crisis of 1958. France was still a colonial power, although conflict and revolt had begun the process of decolonisation. French West Africa, French Indochina, and French Algeria still sent representatives to the French parliament under systems of limited suffrage in the French Union. Algeria in particular, despite being the colony with the largest French population, saw rising pressure for separation from the Metropole. The situation was complicated by those in Algeria, such as white settlers, who wanted to stay part of France, so the Algerian War became not just a separatist movement but had elements of a civil war. Further complications came when a section of the French Army rebelled and openly backed the "Algérie française" movement to defeat separation. Charles de Gaulle, who had retired from politics a decade before, placed himself in the midst of the crisis, calling on the nation to suspend the government and create a new constitutional system. De Gaulle was carried to power by the inability of the parliament to choose a government, popular protest, and the last parliament of the Fourth Republic voting for their dissolution and the convening of a constitutional convention. (Algeria became independent on 5 July 1962.)

The Fourth Republic suffered from a lack of political consensus, a weak executive, and governments forming and falling in quick succession since the Second World War. With no party or coalition able to sustain a parliamentary majority, Prime Ministers found themselves unable to risk their political position with unpopular reforms. De Gaulle and his supporters proposed a system of strong presidents elected for seven-year terms. The President under the proposed constitution would have executive powers to run the country in consultation with a prime minister whom he would appoint. On 1 June 1958, Charles de Gaulle was appointed head of the government;[2] on 3 June 1958, a constitutional law empowered the new government to draft a new Constitution of France,[1] and another law granted Charles de Gaulle and his cabinet the power to rule by decree for up to six months, except on certain matters related to the basic rights of citizens (criminal law, etc.).[3] These plans were approved by more than 80% of those who voted in the referendum of 28 September 1958.[4] The new constitution was signed into law on 4 October 1958.[5] Since each new constitution establishes a new republic, France moved from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic.

The new constitution contained transitional clauses (articles 90–92) extending the period of rule by decree until the new institutions were operating. René Coty stayed President of the Republic until the new president was proclaimed. On 21 December 1958, Charles de Gaulle was elected President of France by an electoral college.[6] The provisional constitutional commission, acting in lieu of the Constitutional Council, proclaimed the results of the election on 9 January 1959. The new president began his office on that date, appointing Michel Debré as Prime Minister.

The 1958 constitution also replaced the French Union with the French Community, which allowed fourteen member territories (these did not include Algeria) to assert their independence.[7] 1960 became known as the "Year of Africa" because of this wave of newly independent states.[8]


The president was initially elected by an electoral college, but in 1962 de Gaulle proposed that the president be directly elected by the citizens, and held a referendum on the change. Although the method and intent of de Gaulle in that referendum were contested by most political groups except for the Gaullists, the change was approved by the French electorate.[9] The Constitutional Council declined to rule on the constitutionality of the referendum.[10]

The president is now elected every five years, changed from seven by a constitutional referendum in 2000, to reduce the probability of cohabitation due to former differences in the length of terms for the National Assembly and Presidency. The President is elected in a two-round system: the first round is open to all candidates and will establish a president if any candidate gets an overall majority; if there is no winner in the first round, the two candidates with the greatest number of votes go to a second round.

Two major changes occurred in the 1970s regarding constitutional checks and balances.[11] Traditionally, France operated according to parliamentary supremacy: no authority was empowered to rule on whether statutes passed by Parliament respected the constitutional rights of the citizens.[12] In 1971, the Constitutional Council, arguing that the preamble of the Constitution referenced the rights defined in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the preamble of the 1946 Constitution, concluded that statutes must respect these rights and declared partially unconstitutional a statute because it violated freedom of association.[13] However, only the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, and the President of each house of Parliament could ask for a constitutional review before a statute was signed into law, which greatly reduced the likelihood of such a review if all these officeholders happened to be from the same side of politics, which was the case at the time. In 1974, a constitutional amendment widened this prerogative to 60 members of the National Assembly or 60 members of the Senate.[14] From that date, the opposition has been able to have controversial new statutes examined for constitutionality.[15]

Presidents of the Fifth Republic

Gaullists are in blue, Socialists in pink, centrists in teal.

President Lived from to Party
Charles de Gaulle 1890–1970 8 January 1959 28 April 1969 (resigned) UNR then UDR
Alain Poher 1909–1996 28 April 1969 15 June 1969 (interim) PDM
Georges Pompidou 1911–1974 15 June 1969 2 April 1974 (died in office) UDR
Alain Poher 1909–1996 2 April 1974 19 May 1974 (interim) PDM
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing 1926– 19 May 1974 21 May 1981 UDF
François Mitterrand 1916–1996 21 May 1981 17 May 1995 Socialist
Jacques Chirac 1932– 17 May 1995 16 May 2007 RPR then UMP
Nicolas Sarkozy 1955– 16 May 2007 15 May 2012 UMP
François Hollande 1954– 15 May 2012 (incumbent) Socialist

Prime Ministers of the Fifth Republic

Name Term start Term end Political Party
Michel Debré 8 January 1959 14 April 1962 Union for the New Republic
Georges Pompidou 14 April 1962 10 July 1968 Union for the New Republic
Maurice Couve de Murville 10 July 1968 20 June 1969 Union of Democrats for the Republic
Jacques Chaban-Delmas 20 June 1969 6 July 1972 Union of Democrats for the Republic
Pierre Messmer 6 July 1972 27 May 1974 Union of Democrats for the Republic
Jacques Chirac (1st time) 27 May 1974 26 August 1976 Union of Democrats for the Republic
Raymond Barre 26 August 1976 21 May 1981 Union for French Democracy
Pierre Mauroy 21 May 1981 17 July 1984 Socialist Party
Laurent Fabius 17 July 1984 20 March 1986 Socialist Party
Jacques Chirac (2nd time) 20 March 1986 10 May 1988 Rally for the Republic
Michel Rocard 10 May 1988 15 May 1991 Socialist Party
Édith Cresson 15 May 1991 2 April 1992 Socialist Party
Pierre Bérégovoy 2 April 1992 29 March 1993 Socialist Party
Édouard Balladur 29 March 1993 18 May 1995 Rally for the Republic
Alain Juppé 18 May 1995 3 June 1997 Rally for the Republic
Lionel Jospin 3 June 1997 6 May 2002 Socialist Party
Jean-Pierre Raffarin 6 May 2002 31 May 2005 Union for a Popular Movement
Dominique de Villepin 31 May 2005 17 May 2007 Union for a Popular Movement
François Fillon 17 May 2007 15 May 2012 Union for a Popular Movement
Jean-Marc Ayrault 15 May 2012 (incumbent) Socialist Party

See also


Further reading

  • Atkin, Nicholas. The Fifth French Republic (European History in Perspective) (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Brouard, Sylvain et al. The French Fifth Republic at Fifty: Beyond Stereotypes (French Politics, Society and Culture) (2009)
  • Lewis-Beck, Michael S., et al. eds. French Presidential Elections (Palgrave Macmillan; 2012) 232 pages; studies of four presidential contests over the past two decades.
  • Rogoff, Martin A. French Constitutional Law: Cases and Materials (Durham, Carolina Academic Press, 2010.[1]
  • Thody, Philip. The Fifth French Republic: Presidents, Politics and Personalities: A Study of French Political Culture (1998) excerpt and text search

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