“A republic, if you can keep it.”
By James H. Andrews
Presented to the Chicago Literary Club
March 18, 2013
We experienced in January this year one of the stirring and recurring moments in our American democracy. A newly-elected president took the oath of office as president of the United States. It was the same oath sworn by George Washington and by his 42 successors in the 224 years since 1789.
In France itself, however, in the years since, the form of government has changed not just once, but repeatedly, from monarchy to republic, to empire, to restoration of the royal line, to republic, and back and forth again and again. The present government of France is the Fifth Republic.
In our country, after the rebellion against the British crown, and a dozen years trying to manage our affairs through a loose confederation of states, we adopted the written constitution that guides us today. In peace and war, even a civil war, we have every four years inaugurated a new president, often with a defeated president at the winner’s side.
The Philadelphia convention that wrote the American constitution met in secret, without press briefings, newspaper reports, instant messages, even Twitters. As the convention broke up, and the men—of course they were men—left the hall, “an anxious lady named Mrs. Powel [sic]” approached Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the best known of the delegates, and of course a longtime resident of the convention city. What type of government, she asked, have you delegates given us? “A republic,” Franklin said, “if you can keep it.” If you can keep it.
We, in America, have kept it, have kept our republic. But this paper is about France, France of the five republics. How does it happen that the French now live in republic number five?
We like, even revere our constitution, those who wrote and adopted it, and in the earliest years, made it work. Our constitution, the structure it prescribes, the rights it proclaims, seem to work well. When we find fault, we think of changing the constitution, and we have, with 27 amendments in 200 years. Sometimes we even repeal an amendment. We also accept the idea of a “living constitution” through an elaborate system of constitutional law. Only once have we resorted to civil war, to war against ourselves.
Our republic has been a beacon for other peoples. Today there are republics all over the world, republics in name at least. Wikipedia’s list of nations that are called “republic” is so long I gave up counting. What a surprising list it is! Democracies, dictatorships, and tyrannies mixed together: the People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949; the other Republic of China, which since 1949 has governed only Taiwan; the Republic of India; the Federal Republic of Germany. Then there are the Arab Republic of Egypt, since 1952; the Dominican Republic; the Islamic Republic of Iran; and in the old days, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
This paper is about republics that, in Franklin’s phrase, could not be kept: The four republics of France that did not endure, and the republic, the Fifth, that most of its people now accept.
The Republic of France—the first one—was, of course, a product of the Revolution of 1789. That Revolution, in the words of historian Alistair Horne, was “the most devastating cataclysm in the whole of Europe’s past history; and, indeed, its future, until the coming of the First World War in 1914 and Lenin in 1917.” The French have spent almost 225 years coming to terms with the Revolution, and assessing and disputing its meaning.
The Revolution came in the wake of circumstances that become all too familiar as regimes come and go: economic stagnation, bills for extravagances and wars, a severely cold winter, hunger, philosophies and beliefs critical of the existing regime.
King Louis XVI in early 1789 convened the Estates-General to raise money to pay down the nation’s enormous debt. Meeting for the first time in 175 years, the Estates-General was composed of three groups or estates—representatives of the nobility, of the clergy, and of the common people. The third estate, calling itself the National Assembly, vowed not to separate until they had a constitution. Eventually joined by members of the other estates, the Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and adopted a liberal constitution, which retained the monarchy, and the king accepted it.
Power in the new Legislative Assembly, elected by active citizens, shifted from one group to another. The government declared war against Austria, found itself fighting Prussia as well, won some battles, and lost others. Revolutionary enthusiasm increased, and mobs attacked the royal palace; there were massacres in Paris and other cities; the king was confined and relieved of his duties.
Increasingly polarized and unable to act, the Assembly was replaced by a National Convention, all republican and elected by manhood suffrage, called to frame a constitution. At its first meeting, September 21, 1792, the Convention abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic—this was the first French republic. The convention tried Louis XVI for treason, found him guilty, and sent him to the guillotine.
The governments that followed over the next twelve years were nominally republican. The National Convention hung on for three years, with various elements of the divided country ruling through various arrangements, executing officials and other citizens regarded as enemies of the Revolution. Most notorious was the Committee of Public Safety, which pursued the infamous Reign of Terror. Robespierre and other leaders were eventually brought down, the Terror ended, and more moderate voices were heard.
The new Constitution of 1795—the third of the Revolution—established a bicameral legislature and an executive in the form of a Directory of five men, one to be replaced each year. But the regime suffered from party divisions, plots, coups-d’etat, counter coups, corruption, and a growing influence of the army.
As various groups struggled for power, Napoleon Bonaparte, the little colonel who became a general, piled up victory after victory on foreign battlefields. Despite an occasional defeat, he attracted the support and loyalty of his men and demonstrated a capacity to undertake and direct large enterprises. In 1799 he led a coup d’etat against the Directory and installed a new governing agency, the Consulate. He was first consul, with a term of ten years and dictatorial powers. Later he was made consul for life.
There was much for him to do. Paris was in terrible condition after “ten years of anarchy, sedition and laxity, during which no useful work had been undertaken, not a street had been cleaned, not a residence repaired, nothing improved or cleansed,” Sainte-Beuve wrote.
Napoleon bridged national divisions. He won “the loyalties of most elements of French life: the Catholics, the bureaucracy, the peasantry and the bourgeoisie.” Yet he addressed the people not as “elements of French life,” but as a whole. In one of his earliest proclamations, he declared that “[t]he Government neither wants, nor recognizes parties any more, seeing in France only Frenchmen.” He ruled for France, embodied France, he was France.
But he was not republican France. In 1804 Napoleon made himself hereditary emperor. The people voted their approval, and the republic—the First Republic, as we start counting—was officially at an end. The Empire won victories at home and abroad, but Napoleon’s military ambitions produced a coalition of enemies that eventually defeated him. He abdicated once, and was exiled. The Allies put a Bourbon king back on the throne, but Napoleon mounted a military campaign to return to power, won popular support, and moved back to the Tuileries Palace. But a vote of the people defeated his new constitution and his army lost to allied forces at Waterloo. One hundred days after his return, he was exiled again.
The new king, Louis XVIII, agreed to a constitution providing for a chamber of peers nominated by the hereditary monarch, a chamber of deputies elected by limited suffrage, and guarantees of civil and religious liberty. Louis was succeeded by Charles X, who attempted to restore the monarchy’s pre-revolution position. Charles lost the support of the Chamber of Deputies, and a liberal majority drafted a protest. At the same time radicals took over Paris and moved to create a new republic. King Charles refused to accept limits on his power and fled to England, declaring, “I would rather hew wood than be a king like the King of England!”
Liberal deputies favored a monarchy rather than a republic, but did not want to restore the senior Bourbon or Bonaparte lines. A rump group settled on Louis-Philippe, representative of a younger Bourbon line and eager for the job. He became King of the French, a “citizen king” without divine right.
Supported in the early years by the wealthy bourgeoisie, Louis-Philippe eventually fell from power because of opposition on the right—followers of the Bourbons and the Bonapartes, and on the left—the new industrial classes.
In 1848, fueled by economic depression and ideas of utopian socialism, workers and students took to the streets of Paris in what is called the February Revolution. Despite armed government resistance, they took over the city. The king, facing strong parliamentary opposition as well, abdicated and fled to England. “[T]his time a regime was not overthrown” said Alexis de Tocqueville, “it was simply allowed to fall.” After the Paris mob infiltrated a rump meeting of the Chamber of Deputies, moderate republicans joined the radicals to proclaim a new republic. That is the second (if you are counting).
The Second Republic was greeted in Paris with what Flaubert called “a carnival-like exuberance.” In Russia, in St. Petersburg, there was a different response: “a thoroughly alarmed Tsar shouted: ‘Gentlemen, saddle your horses; France is a republic!’”
One of the radicals’ alarming objectives was universal manhood suffrage, and it was achieved in France in national elections in April. Eighty-four percent of eligible men voted. The result was a massive vote by conservative France against radical Paris, and moderate Republicans won a majority in the new National Assembly.
But unemployment was high and the proletariat was aware of its political strength. In March, April, and May there were street protests, with protesters invading sessions of the Assembly. The forces of order were now terrified, and riots in June brought a heavy military response. Some 1,500 insurgents were killed and 12,000 arrested. It was, says historian Horne, the bloodiest fighting ever seen on the streets of Paris, including that of 1789, “a scenario of a republic butchering its own supporters in a way that no French monarchy or empire could rival, . . . .The Second Republic limped along with the military in charge.”
A new constitution proposed in November called for a single legislative chamber, a strong president, direct election, and separation of powers. Prince Louis-Napoleon, age 40, had long tried to emulate his imperial uncle, but had attracted attention mainly by leading two unsuccessful coups d’etat. In December 1848 he ran for president of the Republic, a four-year term. Drawing on his name and a popular desire for law and order, he easily defeated two republicans, receiving 75 percent of the vote. The first president of the Republic, Louis-Napoleon took office without a party behind him and a parliament hostile to his ambitions.
He posed as champion of the underdog and in the early years he permitted a free press and introduced social programs for the unemployed. Adolphe Thiers, a parliamentary leader, characterized Louis-Napoleon as someone the Assembly could manage, but the Assembly soon realized the president had substantial political skills. Since he could not run for reelection, Louis-Napoleon tried to change the constitution so he could serve ten years. Monarchists in the Assembly, increasingly afraid of his growing power, refused to provide the votes to extend his term, but could not agree on someone to replace him.
When it was clear there was a deadlock, the president in December 1851 dissolved parliament, arrested 200 deputies, and appealed to the nation. The people voted 7.5 million to 640,000 to give him dictatorial powers for ten years. One year later he declared himself Emperor of the French, reigning as Napoleon III. Another republic that was not kept: This was the end of the Second Republic, the beginning of the Second Empire.
Although short-lived, the Second Republic, far more than the First, introduced France to the responsibilities of democratic government, for both the governors and the governed. There were still many lessons to learn, and social and economic divisions did not make learning easy. But the Republic provided, in the halls of the Assembly and also in the streets, experience in dealing, for better and worse, with conflicting ideals and objectives.
After a dozen years of absolute rule, Napoleon III shifted to what is often called the “Liberal Empire.” He called elections, relaxed censorship, and eventually ordered formation of a cabinet that would faithfully represent the majority in the Legislative Assembly. But the forces of change had been unleashed. Although Napoleon’s supporters won a majority in the Assembly in 1869, 42 percent of the voters cast ballots in favor of his opponents, who ranged across the political spectrum from socialists to monarchists. In the streets there were protests, strikes, riots, an assassination plot. The government made arrests and closed left-wing newspapers, and Napoleon again turned to the public for support. In a May 1870 referendum on his “liberal reforms” of the constitution, he won 7.5 million of the nine million votes cast.
At the same time, in the late 1860s, Napoleon and Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck competed over various pieces of European real estate while the German states moved toward unification. Both men expected war, and in July 1870 France declared war on Prussia. Prussia invaded France, and on September 1 decisively defeated the French. Napoleon, who was at the front, surrendered the entire army, turned his sword over to Prussian King William, and was taken prisoner. It was a colossal defeat for France, the end of the Second Empire, and it made Germany the dominant power in Europe.
The news struck Paris like a thunderbolt. The emperor was a captive of the enemy, 83,000 French soldiers had been captured, another 17,000 were dead or wounded on the battlefield, the Army of the Rhine was pinned down at Metz, and the city of Strasbourg under siege. Reaction was mixed—demoralization alongside jubilation. For radical republicans it was an opportunity.
When the Assembly met that day, there were proposals to declare the throne vacant, secure an armistice, and convoke a constitutional convention. But before the body could act, a mob invaded the chamber. To prevent radicals from seizing the government, most of the deputies trooped to the Hôtel de Ville, the city hall, and there proclaimed the Republic—another Republic. This was republic number three. A government of national defense was organized that afternoon.
That government was “born of necessity,” Adolphe Thiers told the Russian chancellor in St. Petersburg when he sought assistance soon after the government was formed. It “was not the triumph of one party over another, and if it did not satisfy all, it was the despair of none.” Those honest, but far from exciting words, would come to describe the new regime over its life of seventy years. The Third Republic would, as historian Maurice Agulhon put it, “live a long time on the hideous memory of the Bonaparte regime.”
The new republic had a war to fight and a nation to defend, but the Prussian army met little resistance. Within three weeks 200,000 troops surrounded Paris. When the French rejected terms for an armistice, the Prussians laid siege to Paris. Radicals tried to carry on the war, but provincial armies were defeated, destroyed, and immobilized.
The Paris Siege took a terrible toll—smallpox, pneumonia, starvation, shortages of coal and gasoline as well as food. The Prussians, riding high, staged a ceremony in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. With Bismarck and King William himself on hand, the king was proclaimed William I, emperor of a united Germany. Ten days later, January 28, 1871, after four months held captive by the German army, with virtually no food remaining, Paris capitulated.
An armistice permitted the French to elect a representative assembly to decide whether to continue the war. Provincial France was now overwhelmingly anti-war and anti-republican; conservatives won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly and agreed to a treaty of peace.
But Paris radicals did not surrender. Backed by sympathetic troops, they organized the Paris Commune and took control of the city. The Assembly moved its operations to Versailles and in three months the so-called Versailles Army crushed the Communards. By the time it was over, the war among the French for Paris had killed between 20,000 and 30,000 people, far more than the Reign of Terror in Paris. The physical destruction was shocking; the Thomas Cook travel agency sent British tourists to see the ruins.
The provisional French government went about managing the country. The conservative Assembly made Adolphe Thiers president of the Republic. The monarchists, playing for time, regarded the presidency as a temporary position, but could not agree whose head should wear the crown—a descendant of the Bourbon kings, or of Louis-Philippe, or of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Assembly authorized two loans that allowed France to pay the huge indemnity imposed by the Germans, and the German army pulled out. After the loans were paid, the majority voted to condemn the Thiers government and he resigned. The Assembly immediately elected a new president, Marshal MacMahon, a monarchist and the general whose troops crushed the Commune. MacMahon was expected to prepare the way for a king, but the Bourbon and Bonaparte claimants to the throne disqualified themselves. So the Assembly elected MacMahon president for seven years.
There would be no constitutional document for the Third Republic. Its structure was established in 1875, almost five years after collapse of the empire, by a series of laws. The crucial bill passed by one vote. The new system was, one historian calls it, a “republic by default.”
The new parliament was composed of a Chamber of Deputies elected by direct popular vote and a Senate elected indirectly through a system representing municipalities. The two bodies chose a president for a term of seven years. The president could dissolve the Chamber, with Senate consent, but he could not veto actions by parliament. Every precaution was taken to prevent a coup d’etat or ratification by plebiscite. There would not be another Louis-Napoleon. Maurice Agulhon describes the system as “a Republic surrounded by monarchic institutions.”
The first Chamber of Deputies was overwhelmingly republican and the Senate conservative, as was President MacMahon. The first test of the new system came when the president dismissed a premier and the republican Chamber voted “no confidence” in the president’s choice for a replacement. The president, with the Senate’s consent, then dissolved the Chamber and called elections. Republicans won another majority, however, and rejected two more presidential nominees for premier. For republicans, Agulhon says, “the right of dissolution carried a whiff of coup d’etat.” President MacMahon gave up and appointed a premier acceptable to the Chamber. No president dissolved parliament again, and the Chamber of Deputies, with the president sitting on the sidelines, reigned through the Third Republic and the Fourth Republic as well.
In 100 years, all of France’s six constitutional monarchies had turned out badly, so as the Third Republic matured, republicanism came to mean explicitly rejecting monarchy and dictatorship. And because the Roman Catholic Church and its supporters were associated with dictators and monarchs, republicanism also came to mean anticlericalism—rejecting a political role or favoritism for the church.
By 1879, one hundred years after the Revolution, France had reached a basic acceptance of republican government. There were numerous signs: The conservative republican governments of those years acted on two of the great issues from the past—they adopted anti-clerical laws and they gave amnesty to the Paris Communards of 1871. The seat of government moved back from Versailles to Paris. The “Marseillaise” was chosen as the national anthem, and July 14 was established as the national celebration known in English as Bastille Day.
In the Twentieth Century, during the first three decades, France, in the words of Stanley Karnow, “soared from unparalleled prosperity into the carnage of World War I and, after recovering briefly, plummeted into the depths of the Depression.”
The First World War, or the Great War, as it was known then, lasted four years and was fought mostly in France. It “left the country,” Agulhon says, “in a state of lasting enfeeblement.” It cost 1.4 million men killed in action and much of the French hope for the future. The economic depression of the 1930s was accompanied by German expansionism and rearmament. Beleaguered from both the Right and the Left, the weak and changing coalitions of the Chamber of Deputies were not able to respond to these challenges with purpose and consistency. From mid-1932 until Germany invaded Poland—seven years—there were 19 governments and 11 premiers.
The Second World War in Europe began in September 1939. German armies did not invade the Low Countries and France until the following May, but they moved rapidly. Paris fell on June 14. Three days later the French premier resigned and the president asked Philippe Petain, age 84, hero of the First World War and marshal of France, to form a government. He did, and asked for an armistice.
The next day General Charles de Gaulle (whose only government position, assumed two weeks before, had been under-secretary of state for defense) made a radio broadcast from London to the Continent: “Whatever happens,” he said, “the flame of French resistance must not and will not be extinguished.” He urged French officers and soldiers, and engineers and workers in the arms industry, to contact him. Britain supported de Gaulle and severed relations with the Pétain regime. The Petain armistice called for disarming all French forces and surrendering three-fifths of France to German occupation.
The Petain government established its seat in the town of Vichy, where the Third Republic “in effect committed suicide.” The Senate and Chamber of Deputies, sitting together, voted full powers to Petain, then adjourned. The defeated Republic, in the words of one historian, “evaporated like the dew.” It was the end of another Republic, the start of another dictatorial regime, and collaboration between French officials and German conquerors.
A deep and widespread sense of loss pervaded French society. Alan Furst suggests the mood in his novel, Red Gold: “Our part of the world, out in Passy, is coming apart,” a Parisian woman tells an old friend. “That’s really what’s going on. Half of my friends listen to de Gaulle on the radio, the other half keep portraits of Petain on the piano. Somehow, Bruno [her husband] and I wound up on different sides. . . . And it’s not just couples, it’s everywhere, even in the same family—between sisters, between fathers and sons. It’s terrible, Jean-Claude.”
De Gaulle, like Vichy, like every monarch and president before him, claimed to represent the French state. De Gaulle did not claim legality; he did claim legitimacy. On that basis he created a government-in-exile in Algiers with representation of political parties, including the Communists. The Liberation of France erased the Vichy regime, and the Allies recognized de Gaulle’s provisional government in the fall of 1944. Germany surrendered the following May, Japan in August.
The Second World War devastated the French nation. There was not only the German occupation and looting of physical and economic assets, but also political and psychological deterioration and destruction. The French people had fought each other. Trials and punishments, official and otherwise, haunted the country for years to come.
Frank Giles, quoting de Gaulle in his memoirs, writes that “ever since the collapse of Napoleon and the First Empire, [130 years before] France had been living ‘in a chronic state of infirmity, insecurity and acrimony.’ The 1918 victory had revived morale, but only until the 1940 defeat, when ‘the soul of France died a little more.’ So many disasters, he observed, inflicted terrible wounds upon national unity. All fifteen regimes supervening since 1789, ‘each in turn installed by revolution or coup d’etat’, had been swept away by catastrophes, leaving ‘ineffaceable [indelible or non-erasable] divisions’ behind them.”
So, what now? Another German occupation ends; another dictatorial regime collapses. Does France want a new republic, or to revive, somehow, the old Third?
The question was put to the people in October 1945. The answer: 96 percent wanted a new constitution. They also elected a constituent assembly, which made de Gaulle head of government. The three major parties in the Assembly together received seventy-three percent of the popular vote. The dominant parties were—from left to right—the Communists, the socialists, and MRP, a movement of Christian Democratic Catholics and Christian trade unionists. The national and municipal elections in 1945 were, by the way, the first in which women were allowed to vote.
France and de Gaulle now faced the realities of practical government. The Assembly and the parties were, in the view of an exasperated de Gaulle, interfering with executive responsibilities. “How,” he once remarked, “can you govern a country with three hundred varieties of cheese?”
In January, three months after the election, de Gaulle told his surprised ministers that he would not associate himself with a revival of the “party regime” and resigned. The MRP, socialists, and Communists promptly made an agreement that allowed the formation of a new government. The assembly drafted a new constitution providing that, as one writer puts it, “enshrined parliamentary power.” De Gaulle and the MRP opposed the plan, however, and in a referendum in May, 53 percent of voters rejected it.
In a second Constituent Assembly, the three dominant parties agreed on a constitution that gave greater power to the president, but still put “parliament at the apex of the system.” The new plan called for two legislative bodies, both elected by popular vote. The two houses would meet together to elect a president.
When put to a referendum in October 1946, the plan won, but support was weak: one-third of the electorate did not vote at all and nearly one-third voted against it. France had another republic with shaky public support. Although Communists had been part of the government since Liberation, the party became more and more critical of it. In May 1947, pushed by a huge strike at the Renault factories, Communist deputies broke ministerial solidarity and voted against the government. The premier dismissed the Communist ministers.
De Gaulle had resigned from the government, now the Communists were out. That meant, Agulhon points out, that the Republic had broken “with the most popular of the forces which had arisen from the Resistance. The regime thus inaugurated the long years of struggle on two fronts that were to characterize it for history.” De Gaulle’s biographer, Jonathan Fenby, says that this was “the true birth of the Fourth Republic as Socialists, Radicals, and Independents sought to govern through a ‘Third force’ in the centre-left of French politics, dominated by a small cast of individuals who swapped government posts or held on through thick and thin.”
“Thick and thin” meant years of flimsy coalitions, of “turn-stile politics,” Stanley Karnow calls it. In fourteen years there were 25 cabinets, with an average life span of six months. The French “contemptuously dubbed the assembly la maison sans fenetres.”—the house without windows.
“History largely accounted for the chronic instability,” Karnow writes. Since 1789 repeated revolts against oppression had produced fifteen separate regimes based on “a visceral distrust for authority.” The constitution “perpetuated the fissures that had traditionally fragmented France: urban versus rural, management versus labor, big corporations versus small —and the most stubborn of all, secular versus religious.”
The biggest challenges in the 1950s, however, came from outside: the Cold War between East and West and the decolonialization of French possessions in Indochina and Africa. France spent time, money, and lives trying to hang on to its colonies. Other international efforts were more successful: The nations of Western Europe built organizations for economic cooperation and joined with the United States and Canada for military security.
By 1958, however, as a New York Times book reviewer wrote, “on the cusp of civil war over Algeria, the Fourth Republic was ready to collapse, and it did—right into the hands of Le Grand Charles.”
Algeria was no mere colony. It was legally part of France and home to one million French settlers living among nine million indigenous Muslims. A savage guerrilla war had gone on for years, bringing demonstrations and violence to a head in Paris and Algiers in the spring of 1958. One government resigned, then another. The Army in Algeria staged a coup. A few days later seventy American tourists refused to leave their planes at Orly Airport for fear of being caught up in a revolution. General de Gaulle, 67, out of government for a dozen years, said, “I am ready to assume the powers of the Republic.” President Coty asked him to form a government.
Here we are again: Another republic in danger, another de Gaulle rescue. And another republic to come, this one the fifth.
The Assembly voted for a de Gaulle government and granted him emergency powers for six months. A new constitution with a strong presidential office won a 79 percent majority in a referendum that fall. De Gaulle, chosen by a system of indirect election, assumed the presidency in January 1959 for a term of seven years. He ruled as a republican monarch.
But the torment of Algeria continued. In a January 1961 referendum, 75 percent supported the principle of self-determination for Algeria. But negotiations faced opposition in both France and Algeria. In 1961-62 there were demonstrations and terrorist attacks, attempts on de Gaulle’s life, and another putsch in Algiers, led by four French generals. In July 1962 the French voted 99.72 percent for Algerian self-determination, and two days later Algeria was independent.
France’s first direct election for president (the result of a constitutional change) took place in December 1965. De Gaulle, now 75, ran against the political parties. The issue, he told the voters, is “me or chaos.” He won only 45 percent in the first round of voting—Francois Mitterrand came in second—but he won the second round with 54.5 percent.
The Republic faced another threat again in 1968 when university students protested policies and operation of the University of Paris. Violent demonstrations were followed by a general strike, paralyzing France and jeopardizing the Republic.
Forty years later, Steven Erlanger, writing in The New York Times, described the impact of those events: “May 1968 was a watershed in French life, a holy moment of liberation for many, when youth coalesced, the workers listened and the semi-royal French government of President Charles de Gaulle took fright. But for others, like the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, only 13 years old at the time, May '68 represents anarchy and moral relativism, a destruction of social and patriotic values that, he has said in harsh terms, "must be liquidated.’"
In the midst of the revolution, de Gaulle disappeared, going to French army headquarters in Germany seeking support. He then addressed the nation, rallying the faithful in Paris. He dissolved the Assembly and won a huge majority in parliamentary elections in June The crisis was over, but his position was weakened. The next year he called a referendum on two constitutional changes and declared it a vote on his leadership. Fifty-four percent voted against him and he resigned.
After de Gaulle, the most significant figure in the history of the Fifth Republic is François Mitterrand, a Socialist. Mitterrand lost two presidential elections, then won in 1981. He won a second term seven years later, serving as president for fourteen years. Like de Gaulle, he was criticized for his monarchical style.
Mitterrand’s tenure demonstrated, first, that the Socialist Party could govern; the Fifth Republic was essentially conservative before Mitterrand. It showed also that the Republic could survive with a constitutionally strong president of one party and at the same time a prime minister and parliamentary majority from other parties. After an initial victory, the socialists lost their parliamentary majority, then won it back. Two periods of what the French call “cohabitation” showed the strength and flexibility of the Republic, its parties, and its leaders.
De Gaulle saved his country twice, in 1940 and 1958. He led the ultimately successful battle to create a strong constitutional presidency, and his presidency, in the words of historian Tony Judt, marked the end of “the era of political irresponsibility” that dated from 1918.
De Gaulle was not modest about his own status. Biographer Jonathan Fenby tells this story: “When his secretary raised the prospect of him becoming a member of the Academie-Francaise, he replied: ‘The King of France does not belong to the Academy, nor does Napoleon.’” His final contribution, like Washington’s, was to give up the presidency voluntarily.
France now faces the challenge of dealing with a significant minority population in a way that honors the rights proclaimed in the Revolution of 1789. French economic and social divisions, however, appear to be less substantial today than in earlier republics. And France has been able, incredibly, through sustained and shared effort, at home and abroad, to live peacefully with its European neighbors for almost seventy years.
Vive la France!
Vive la Republique!