This month marks the 56th anniversary of France’s fifth republic – and one of the country’s longest periods of stability. Perhaps inevitably, however, it began in a time of crisis and conflict: the atrocities of the Algerian war heralded the collapse of the fourth republic.
The brainchild of Charles de Gaulle, the new regime created the role of president. Significantly, among the powers it conveyed, it allowed the postholder to appoint the prime minister.
De Gaulle was sworn in as the first president in January 1959. Ironically, he had given up politics ten years earlier, but the crisis in Algeria and the weakness of the government under the fourth republic enabled his comeback.
It meant he oversaw a hefty chunk of what the French call ‘les trente glorieuses’ – 30 years of rapid economic growth.
“The crisis in Algeria and the weakness of the government under the fourth republic enabled de Gaulle’s comeback”
Part of that was the result of the country’s leading position in Europe. Although he hadn’t been involved in setting up the European Economic Community, de Gaulle threw himself into the project, bolstering France’s relationship with Germany in particular. His antipathy towards Britain would stymie the UK’s hopes of joining the common market until after his death.
In 1962, Algeria was declared independent. That same year, de Gaulle sought approval from the electorate for his plans to have presidents elected by the public, rather than by an electoral college.
Ultimately, however, his use of referenda would prove his undoing: he resigned in 1969 after losing a public vote on a minor constitutional change. Just over 18 months later, he was dead.
Of his successors, only François Miterand and Jacques Chirac remained in power longer than de Gaulle. Based on François Hollande’s current popularity ratings, I’d wager that he is unlikely to top that.