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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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Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

Bikini, topless, swimsuit, wetsuit, burkini - what women wear to go swimming in France is apparently the business of the Interior Minister. Here's why.

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women's swimwear?

It’s a row that erupts regularly in France – the use of the ‘burkini’ swimsuit for women – but this year there is an added wrinkle thanks to the country’s new anti-separatism law.

What has happened?

Local authorities in Grenoble, eastern France, have updated the rules on swimwear in municipal pools.

French pools typically have strict rules on what you can wear, which are set by the local authority.

For women the rule is generally a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, but not a monokini – the term in France for wearing bikini bottoms only, or going topless. For men it’s Speedos and not baggy swim-shorts and many areas also stipulate a swimming cap for both sexes.

These rules typically apply only to local-authority run pools, if you’re in a privately-owned pool such as one attached to a hotel, spa or campsite then it’s up to the owners to decide the rules and if you’re lucky enough to have a private pool then obviously you can wear (or not wear) what you want.

READ ALSO Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos?

Now authorities in Grenoble have decided to relax their rules and allow baggy swim shorts for men while women can go topless (monokini) or wear the full-cover swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’. This is essentially a swimsuit that has arms and legs, similar in shape to a wetsuit but made of lighter fabric, while some types also have a head covering.

Is this a problem?

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear has caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move.

Those against it insist that it’s not about comfy swimwear, it’s about laïcité – that is, the French secularism rules that also outlaw the wearing of religious clothing such as the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippah in State spaces such as schools and government offices.

READ ALSO Laïcité: How does France’s secularism law work?

The burkini is predominantly worn by Muslim women, although some non-Muslim women also prefer it because it’s more modest and – for outdoor pools – provides better sun protection. 

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC.

Is this France’s first burkini row?

Definitely not, the modest swimsuit has been causing a stir for some years now.

In 2016 several towns in the south of France attempted to ban the burkini on their beaches. This went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional, and the State cannot dictate what people wear on the beach.

The situation in municipal pools is slightly different in that local authorities can make their own rules under local bylaws. Most pools don’t explicitly ban the burkini, but instead list what is acceptable – and that’s usually either a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. These decisions are taken on hygiene, not religious, grounds.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear, which seems to have passed unnoticed until the Grenoble row erupted.

Why is the Interior Minister getting involved?

What’s different about the latest row is the direct involvement of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He appears to have no objection to topless swimming in Grenoble, but he is very upset about women covering up when going for a dip.

No, he’s not some kind of creepy beauty pageant judge from the 1970s – he’s upset about laïcité.

Darmanin called the decision “an unacceptable provocation” that is “contrary to our values”.

He has ordered the local Préfet to open a review of the decision, and later announced that prosecutors had opened an inquiry into Alliance Citoyenne, a group that supports the wearing of burkinis in pools.

And the reason that he gets to intervene directly on the issue of local swimming pools rules is France’s ‘anti-separatism’ law that was passed in 2020.

This wide-ranging law covers all sorts of issues from radical preaching in mosques to home-schooling, but it also bans local councils from agreeing to ‘religious demands’ and among its provisions it allows the Interior Minister to intervene directly on certain issues.

So far this power has been used mostly to deal with extremism in mosques, several of which have been closed down for short periods while extremist preachers were removed.

Darmanin’s foray into women’s swimwear seems to represent an extension of the use of these powers. 

Is this all because there is an election coming up?

Parliamentary elections are coming up in June and the political temperature is rising. It’s certainly noticeable that in Darmanin’s initial tweet about the matter he referred to Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle as a “supporter of Mélenchon”, although Piolle is actually a member of the Green party.

Mélenchon and his alliance of leftist parties are currently the main rival for Macron’s LREM at the parliamentary elections.