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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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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Oldest allies: The best and worst moments of the French-American relationship

From military support to submarine disputes, statue-giving to French fry boycotts, the relationship between France and the USA has had its ups and downs over the last 250 years. As Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden meet in Washington, we take a look at some of the highs and lows.

Oldest allies: The best and worst moments of the French-American relationship

Franco-American relations go back a long way, with US diplomats and politicians often referring to the French as “our oldest allies” – a callback to when French king Louis XVI decided to support the American Revolution led by George Washington.

However, it’s not always been smooth sailing.

You can hear The Local team discuss the Franco-American relationship with special guest Jim Bittermann, the veteran CNN correspondent, of the latest edition of the Talking France podcast. Download it here or listen on the link below. 

As Emmanuel Macron enjoys a state visit in the US – the first state visit of the Biden presidency – here’s a look at the best of times and the worst of times. 

Best moments

The Revolutionary War – Without the help of the French, the Americans would have struggled to win their War of Independence. In February 1778, General Washington made an unusually optimistic announcement, saying that France’s decision to join the war effort had introduced “a most happy tone to all our affairs”.

In 1781, the French fleet played a significant role in the American victory in Yorktown, Virginia, which put an end to the Revolutionary War. 

When the time came for Great Britain to recognise the sovereignty of its former colonies and sign a peace treaty with them, the signing took place in Paris, on September 3rd, 1783.

France’s military assistance for the United States during the war did come at a significant economic cost – the country found itself over a billion livres (the French currency at the time) in debt. Not long after, France embarked upon its own revolution.

During and after the Revolutionary War, the US was home to several francophiles, such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. As for France, French architect and urban designer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who left his home country in 1776, went on to design the new capital of Washington D.C. There was also Marquis de Lafayette who went on the be a national hero in both countries, having served as a General in the American Revolution and helping to draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man during the French one.

The Statue of Liberty – Otherwise known as La Liberté éclairant le monde (Liberty lighting up the world) the statue is a monument to Franco-American friendship. 

The 93-metre-tall Lady Liberty – who has welcomed scores of immigrants “yearning to breathe free” – is actually French. Dedicated in 1886, the statue was a gift from the French people, intended to strengthen the relationship between the two countries.

The idea originally came from French historian Édouard de Laboulaye, an anti-slavery activist and avid supporter of the Union during the Civil War. He hoped that the statue would represent liberty and symbolise the freedom of thought repressed under Napoleon III’s regime. 

Eventually, it was sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi who brought the statue to life (and reputedly modelled her face on his mother) helped by a famous engineer known for another and tall structure – Gustave Eiffel.

READ MORE: French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

First and Second World Wars – After almost three years of neutrality, the United States joined World War I, sending about 10,000 men a day during the summer of 1918 to the Western Front. The introduction of the American troops helped to strengthen the Allies and aided them in winning the war. In 1918, Woodrow Wilson sailed to France, becoming the first American President to visit a European country while in office. 

And about two decades later the US also joined the Allied side in World War II – thousands of American soldiers died on the beaches in Normandy during the D-Day landings of 1944 and are commemorated each year in June by French and American representatives.

However, in both cases, the post-war period proved more fractious.

After World War I, when President Wilson sought to negotiate his ‘Fourteen Point’ peace plan, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau is reported to have said: “Mr Wilson bores me with his Fourteen Points; why, God Almighty has only 10!” 

A home for America’s ‘Lost Generation’ – Many years after winning over the heart of Benjamin Franklin, other great American thinkers – artists and writers – found a home in Paris.

During the period following World War I, figures from Paul Bowles and Ernest Hemingway to Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, used their time in France to inform their art. Paris offered what many saw as a freer, more expressive and open environment (not to mention the fact that the exchange rate at the time meant that they could live well in Paris on just a few dollars a month). 

The worst moments

But of course, it’s not all sunshine and wine – here are some of the more strained moments in the long relationship.

The Quasi-War – American and French friendship lasted for the first few years after the US gained its independence, but relations turned sour soon after the start of the French Revolution, and the beheading of King Louis XVI.

France had lent vast sums to the US to aid in their struggle for independence, but the Americans suspended repayments of these loans, claiming that the new French Revolution made previous agreements null.

Things became even worse when the new French republic found itself at war with Great Britain, as the United States declared itself neutral in the conflict, claiming that their Treaty of Alliance with France had been with the now-deceased King Louis XVI, so was no longer valid. 

The US needed to continue trading with British colonies in the Caribbean and so negotiated the Jay Treaty. For the revolutionary government of France, this treaty was proof that America had decided to trade with France’s enemies, and therefore France ought to treat the Americans like enemies. French privateers went on to seize US merchant ships.

While war was never officially declared, American naval ships did have engagements with French naval ships.

Napoleon’s support for the Confederacy – Technically, during the American Civil War, France remained neutral. However, Napoleon III was known to have favoured the Confederacy, in part due to his desire to protect the cotton trade.

France also wanted to expand its influence in Mexico, and sent troops to help Mexican monarchists with their plan to restore the monarchy.

This led to the union building up American military presence on the border with Mexico, and eventually – between the troops and diplomatic measures taken – Napoleon was persuaded to withdraw his troops.

De Gaulle v America – After World War II the Allies instituted AMGOT – the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories – in the defeated countries of Italy and Germany.

However US President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed AMGOT should have been implemented in newly-liberated France too – primarily because he found it impossible to work with General Charles de Gaulle, who he believed had the potential to act as an authoritarian leader.

He was eventually persuaded by the American General Eisenhower to drop the plan, but unsurprisingly, the post-war period for Franco-American relations was at times tense.

For his part, De Gaulle strongly opposed what he saw as American hegemony, expelling American military units from French soil and partially withdrawing France from NATO.

The Iraq war – One of the most unhappy chapters in the book of Franco-American relations is that of the Iraq War.

While the French did express solidarity with the United States after 9/11, they did not support the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq with then-President Jacques Chirac refusing to join the US-led coalition in 2003.

In a tit-for-tat response, the Americans renamed French fries as “freedom fries” while US cartoon The Simpsons got on board, coining the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” to describe the French. 

READ MORE: Myth-busting: Are these 12 clichés about France actually true?

According to polling, French public opinion of the United States plummeted in an unprecedented drop as soon as the United States invaded Iraq. Those low opinions remained in place until the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

Submarines – And finally, the relationship between France and the United States deteriorated greatly after what became known as a AUKUS affair in 2021.

Essentially Australia backed out of an agreement to buy submarines from the French and instead, the US ended up selling its own submarines, leaving the French out of the trilateral defence pact. In response, France threatened to recall its ambassador to the United States.

US president Joe Biden has since somewhat-apologised – calling the deal “clumsy” and saying that it “was not done with a lot of grace” – and when it came to the first state visit of his presidency, he chose Emmanuel Macron in what many see as a a way of smoothing ruffled French feathers. 

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