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FRENCH HISTORY

Explained: What is the French Fifth Republic?

You have likely heard people talk about 'la cinquième République' - but what does this actually mean and why is it important to understand?

France is currently in a constitutional period known as the Fifth Republic.
France is currently in a constitutional period known as the Fifth Republic. But what does this actually mean? (Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP)

As most people know, France is a republic – meaning it has no monarchy. The country’s official name is la République française and the national crest displays the initials RF.

But why does the phrase Fifth Republic crop up so often and what happened to the previous four?

A quick history lesson

France officially proclaimed the Abolition of the Monarchy in 1792, marking the beginning of the First French Republic.

King Louis XVI was guillotined the following year, but despite this firm statement of intent, it was not all plain sailing for the fledgling Republic.

Periods of republican rule has been interrupted over the past couple of hundred years by, among other things, military strongmen declaring themselves Emperor; a brief restoration of the monarchy and the Nazi occupation. 

  • The First Republic (1792-1804) 

Declared after French Revolution, this might be best described as the ‘pilot episode’ republic.. It was marked by serious instability and multiple forms of government, culminating in the Consulate – in which three men, led by bold military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, effectively ran the country as a dictatorship. 

 

Napoleon declared himself Emperor in 1804, bringing an end to Republican rule. 

  • The Second Republic (1848-1852)

After Napoleon was defeated (at Waterloo, thanks Abba) the French monarchy briefly returned under Louis XVIII, younger brother of the guillotined Louis XVI.

But by 1848, again tired of monarchy, the French people rose up and declared a Second Republic, run by Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis Napoleon (also known as Napoleon III). 

The new constitution prevented the president from seeking a second term in office. Unhappy with this, Louis Napoleon made a power grab, overthrowing government and declaring a new French Empire, with himself at its head. This marked the end of the Second Republic. 

  • The Third Republic (1870-1940)

Napoleon III ruled up until 1870 but made the fatal error of entering into war with Prussia (a powerful German state). He was captured by the Prussians and in his absence, members of parliament declared a new Republic. 

This incarnation of Republican rule was considerably more stable and lasted longer than the others – brought to an end not by domestic politics but by the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. 

During the war, France was run by a facist puppet government known as the Vichy regime while Charles de Gaulle declared himself head of the ‘government in exile’ in London.

  • The Fourth Republic (1946-58) 

Once the war was over and the Nazis gone, the Fourth Republic was initiated via referendum. 

It ushered in a period known as the Trente Glorieuses, a 30-year economic boom, aided by the massive financial stimulus of the American Marshall Plan. 

But it too was marked by rampant instability. Over the 12-year duration of the Fourth Republic, there were a total of 26 governments. 

So what about the Fifth Republic? 

We’re there at last – the Fifth Republic began on 4th October 1958. 

It was essentially the result of a political crisis in Algeria, which as the time was a French colony.

At the time, the French political system was in a mess. Power was heavily invested in the French parliament which was deeply divided and constantly in deadlock.

The military were frustrated at a lack of clear direction from the top, which they argued made it harder to maintain dominance over France’s vast colonial empire. 

Sensing that the government in Paris was paving the way for Algeria to split from France, French soldiers in Algeria launched a military coup in opposition to this – the military also seized power in Corsica. 

The national government panicked, fearing that insurrection could spread to France itself and other colonies.

Charles de Gaulle – who made his name as a figurehead of the French resistance during WW2 and as the country’s first post-war leader –  was called out of retirement to unite the country, restore order and avoid what some feared would become a civil war.  

Charles de Gaulle delivers a speech in Algiers, 1958.

Charles de Gaulle delivers a speech in Algiers, 1958. (Photo by AFP)

De Gaulle became president in what his rival François Mitterrand described as a “Coup d’État” and passed a new constitution that concentrated power in the hands of the Executive branch of government, at the expense of the prime minister and parliament. 

This radical rebalancing of power marked a significant shift in the system of government in France, so much so that it was seen as marking the birth of a new republic. 

What are the defining characteristics of the Fifth Republic? 

The French Fifth Republic is a democracy but one in which the president holds substantial power

During his or her five-year term, the president is Head of State, head of the armed forces, can dissolve parliament, organise referenda, appoint government ministers (including the prime minister), control foreign policy and ratify treaties. 

How long will it last? 

That is anyone’s guess – no-one can predict when a ruler will be captured by the Prussians, guillotined or perhaps succumb to more mundane domestic politics. 

The most popular left-wing candidate for the 2022 presidential race, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is calling for the constitution to be re-written.

He proposes holding a referendum on changing the electoral system; reducing the voting age to 16; reducing the power of the president by returning to a parliamentary democracy; and a number of other changes that he says would mark the beginning of a Sixth Republic. 

Current polls however suggest that he is unlikely to win the presidential election or even make it to the second round. 

For now, it appears that the Fifth Republic is here to stay. 

So why do we need to know all this history?

Obviously learning history is always fun, but the Fifth Republic is frequently used in modern political discourse as a sort of shorthand for ‘recent history’.

Here are some examples;

Macron est le plus jeune président de la cinquième république – Macron is the youngest president of the Fifth Republic. In other words, the youngest president since 1958 (he was actually the youngest ruler of France since Napoleon when he was elected in 2017).

Sous la Ve République cinq présidents sortants ont décidé de briguer un nouveau mandat – Under the Fifth Republic, five presidents have decided to run for another term

Aux élections législatives de 2007 il a été enregistré en France le plus haut pourcentage d’abstention depuis le début de la Cinquième République – The 2007 elections saw the highest abstention rate since the beginning of the Fifth Republic [in 1958]

It’s usually used in a political context, but now you know that the timeframe in question is about 65 years. 

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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: There is buried treasure in Rennes-le-Château

Legend has it that a penniless priest once stumbled upon gold hidden in the French countryside - a story that still inspires treasure-hunters.

French history myths: There is buried treasure in Rennes-le-Château

Myth: A penniless priest in the small town of Rennes-le-Château, south west France, discovered treasure in the late 1800s. That treasure is still hidden somewhere in the countryside. 

The story begins 1885 when Father Bérenger Saunière took over the parish of a small town in the Aude département, not far from Carcassonne, called Rennes-le-Château.

But the church, l’église Saint Mary Magdalene, that Saunière inherited was practically in ruins, so he set upon refurbishing the building – which surprised those around him who knew of his strained financial situation. According to legend, Saunière implied that he had discovered treasure and was using that to pay for the renovations. When he died, the location of the treasure supposedly died with him.

Fast forward to the years following World War II – a restauranteur and entrepeneur by the name of Noël Corbu acquired an estate in Rennes-le-Château, and along with it supposed archives from Saunière about how he had discovered the treasure of a former queen of France – Blanche of Castille (though some say it was the Treasure of the Cathars or the Knights Templar).

Corbu made it his mission to spread the story near and far, with the regional press reporting about the “priest with billions.”

Visitors came from across France to learn about the legend and try to find the treasure hidden in Rennes-le-Château – and to eat in Corbu’s restaurant and stay in his newly-opened hotel. 

So how did the priest get the money for his expensive renovations? The answer, according to a 60 Minutes special by CBS News, was “good old fashioned fraud.” The priest likely stole from donations and asked for payments for hundreds of Masses that he never actually performed. 

The Da Vinci Code series is also responsible for bringing the small town back into public eye. One of Dan Brown’s main characters is named Jacques Saunière, inspired by the priest. Brown supposedly visited the village and drew inspiration, as it had also been made famous in the book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” that expanded on Corbu’s claims of having found hidden, secret documents belonging to the priest.

The book asserts that those documents contained proof that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that their child went on to become the Merovingian line (a dynasty of French kings).

Historians refute these claims too, and several excavations have been conducted at the church. Though they have never unearthed anything of substance, that has not stopped eager treasure hunters from digging holes and lugging their metal detectors to the small village, seeking the truth behind the legend.

This article is part of our August series on popular myths and misconceptions about French history.

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