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HENRY SREBRNIK: De Gaulle’s Fifth French Republic, 60 years on

Henry Srebrnik
Henry Srebrnik - Contributed

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Fifth Republic in France. It is now the second-longest constitutional order in the country since the 1789 French Revolution.
It is surpassed only by the Third Republic, which lasted from 1870 until the French defeat of 1940 in the Second World War.
The Fifth Republic was born amidst a profound crisis that destroyed the ill-fated Fourth Republic.
The latter lasted little more than a decade, and collapsed due to the vicious colonial wars France had been fighting in Indochina and Algeria.
The Fourth Republic’s weak parliamentary system had seen a revolving door of prime ministers amidst political gridlock -- there were 21 administrations in its 12-year history. 
Moreover, the government proved unable to make effective decisions regarding the decolonization of the numerous remaining French colonies. 
After a series of crises, most importantly the Algerian one of 1958, the Fourth Republic collapsed. 
In many ways the Algerian War, launched by the Front de Libération Nationale in 1954, almost tore the nation apart. 
Across the Mediterranean from metropolitan France, Algeria had, apart from its indigenous Arab Muslim population of some 8.5 million, about a million French settlers, known as pied-noirs.
They, of course, wanted to remain French, under the slogan Algérie française.
Favourable to them, the French Army in Algeria slowly consolidated power, and by May 1958 had complete control over the territory and were on the verge of launching a coup d’état.
Fearing a military takeover of France itself, the government called former general Charles de Gaulle, the hero of the Second World War, out of retirement to hold the country together. 
He now presided over a transitional administration that was empowered to design a new French constitution. 
The Fourth Republic was dissolved by a public referendum in 1958 which established the modern-day Fifth Republic with a strengthened presidency. 
Under this semi-presidential form of government, the president has substantial power, holds a term of five years and, following a change to the constitution in 1962, is directly elected by the French people. (De Gaulle held the position until 1968.)
Algeria eventually became independent on July 5, 1962, and virtually the entire European population left thereafter.
De Gaulle was a military man who was ahead of his time. In the 1930s he defied the strategic orthodoxy of the military high command by advocating greater reliance on armoured divisions. 
When France fell to Hitler’s armies in June 1940, de Gaulle escaped to England, salvaging the country’s honour by creating the Free French movement, rather than joining the defeatist Vichy regime of Marshal Philppe Pétain.
On June 18 he broadcast an appeal to his compatriots on the BBC to continue the struggle, vowing to kindle the “flame of resistance.” 
Over the next four years, the exiled general became the symbol of the French collective fight against the Germans.
The French turned to him again in 1958, and he once again saved the republic.
Since de Gaulle, who left office in 1969, there have been seven French presidents, of differing political ideologies, under the Fifth Republic. Emmanuel Macron, the latest, was elected last year. 
Finally, France has crafted a republican system that seems to work. 
Now the nation’s most revered historical figure, de Gaulle has thousands of streets, schools and public squares across France bearing his name. Le général had saved the country twice.

 

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