Live from France: Why the Fifth Republic May Collapse By Nathan Richmond

Live from France: Why the Fifth Republic May Collapse By Nathan Richmond

It is two months until the 2017 French presidential election, which may be the last under the 5th Republic. While the public and the media in France focus on the candidates and the issues, no one is raising the specter that as a result of the election the entire edifice of the Fifth Republic may collapse.

Brief Overview of French Republics

The Third French Republic was created in 1871 following the collapse of Napoleon III's Second Empire when Germany defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War. The majority of delegates to the post-war constitutional convention were monarchists, but they could not agree on which family to put at the head of the country:  Bourbons, Orleans, or Bonapartes. So they created the Third Republic which was to be a temporary, caretaker government until the monarchists could agree among themselves. That temporary government lasted 70 years until the Nazis defeated the French in 1940.

The Fourth French Republic was created in 1946 in the aftermath of World War II. It featured a ceremonial presidency and a powerful legislature. But the legislature was elected on the basis of proportional representation resulting in so many parties having seats that it was difficult to create a stable coalition government. In the 12 years of its existence, the Fourth Republic lurched from crisis to crisis and government after government, each of which collapsed nearly every six months.

The final event that led to the downfall of the Fourth Republic was the 1958 Algerian Crisis. Algeria, a French colony since the 19th century, was waging a war for independence. The French military command, afraid that the French government would concede Algeria's independence, presented an ultimatum: appoint retired general Charles deGaulle head of the government, or risk a coup d'etat.

DeGaulle was appointed and in 1958 a new constitution for the Fifth Republic was enacted providing for a powerful presidency and a weak legislature, a system that DeGaulle favored.  It is a hybrid system, unlike the US presidential system with three co-equal branches designed to check and balance each other. Nor is it a purely parliamentary system either.  It is a semi-presidential system with both a president and a prime minister.


In this hybrid system, the president, directly elected by the people, is an extremely powerful position and is the focal point of the political system. The president appoints the prime minister who is the head of the government and acts as the president's liaison with the National Assembly, the lower house of the legislature. If the president's political party wins a majority in the legislative (National Assembly) election, now held a week after the second round of the presidential election, there is no problem. The president will then have his/her legislative program passed. 

But there is a fatal flaw in the design of this system.  If the opposition wins the legislative election and there is a president from one party and National Assembly majority from another, as has happened three times (1986-1988, 1993-1995, and 1997-2002) in the Fifth Republic, the President become virtually powerless and the Prime Minister (from the opposition representing the majority in the National Assembly) can pass his/her legislative program, even undoing the sitting president's agenda. And the president is helpless to prevent it because the French president has no veto power.

The French call this event, when the president cedes power to the prime minister, cohabitation. French political analysts are divided as to whether cohabitation illustrates the flexibility, durability, and resilience of the Fifth Republic, or its inherent chronic instability. I firmly believe it is the latter and the results of the upcoming elections may finally bring about the end of this flawed system and creation of the Sixth Republic.

The Upcoming Election

There are five major candidates (and several minor ones) running for president this year. On the far left is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former philosophy teacher, former member of the Socialist Party with which he split in 2008, former government minister, former senator, and currently a member of the European Parliament. Of the top 5 candidates, Mélenchon is expected to place fifth and therefore not move on to the second round of the election in which only the top two from the first round advance.

The center-left candidate representing the Socialist Party Benoit Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate having won his party's primary against former prime minister Manuel Valls.  The current president, François Hollande, also a Socialist, declined to run for a second term with an approval rating hovering at about 4%. Hamon, a former member of the European Parliament and former government minister under President Hollande, will likely place fourth in the first round and also not move on to the second.

The center-right candidate of the Republicans is former prime minister François Fillon who won his party's nomination in a primary contest against former prime minister Alain Juppé and former president Nicolas Sarkozy. A month ago it appeared that Fillon would become France's next president. But a corruption scandal has led to his decline in the polls and it appears, as of now, that he too will not advance to the second round. 

The Fillon corruption scandal centers on payments to his wife whom he hired as his parliamentary assistant.  In France, it is not illegal to hire spouses, one's adult children, or relatives for such positions, but in this case there is a question as to whether she actually did any work for her salary, having been paid nearly a million euros over a two-decade period. Ironically, Fillon won the primary against Juppé (previously convicted of a corruption charge) and Sarkozy, currently under investigation for corruption.

On the far right is Marine LePen of the National Front party founded by her father, Jean-Marie LePen. A lawyer by training, LePen is currently polling in first place and will likely face Emmanuel Macron in a run-off election in early May. LePen is hoping that the same anti-elite, anti-globalization forces and in Britain, anti-EU sentiments, that fueled the Brexit and Trump victories will propel her to victory. 

Finally, Emmanuel Macron is currently polling second. Macron is something of an enigma in French politics.  A millionaire, former investment banker, former minister in Hollande's Socialist government, Macron doesn't fit the traditional profile of a French politician. He is a middle-of-the-road candidate attempting to appeal to the French Left and the Right. He has created his own party named "En Marche!" (Forward!). Typically, the French don't elect middle-of-the-road politicians, but if Macron edges Fillon to advance to the second round, he will likely defeat LePen.

So, as of now, it appears that either LePen or Macron will likely be France's next president.  But it is improbable that either candidate will have a majority in the National assembly election held a week after the second round of the presidential contest.  LePen's party currently has two seats out of 577 and they are unlikely to increase that number to a majority (289/577).  It is doubtful that Macron's newly-created (in 2016) En Marche! party will win more than a few seats either.  Therefore, the most likely scenario is a fourth attempt at cohabitation--or more likely, systemic crisis and collapse.

The difference between the first three cohabitations and the likely fourth, is that all of the players previously involved were mainstream politicians representing mainstream political parties. But LePen represents the extreme Right of the French political spectrum and if she won the presidency, it is highly unlikely that any other party would be willing to engage her in a coalition. 

Macron is also outside of the mainstream and someone who wants to change France significantly.  Unlike LePen, Macron probably could find a party that would govern with him, but not on his terms. He would become a powerless figurehead, handing power over to whomever he appoints prime minister and his campaign promises and vision for a renewed France would quickly evaporate.  Macron would be a leader with no followers and would find that to be intolerable.

Cohabitation was never envisioned by deGaulle as a possibility in the Fifth Republic. He believed that the president should have a legislature willing to enact the president's program, or else the president should resign. In 2017 we may see the final act of the Fifth Republic if LePen or Macron is elected and they cannot create a workable cohabitation government.

Since 1789 France has experienced several monarchies, two empires, German occupation and collaborationist governments, and five republics. Sixty years has been a pretty good run for the Fifth Republic. What will a Sixth Republic look like, and will it last as long as the Fifth? We may find out sooner than later.


Nathan Richmond is Professor of Government at Utica College and currently resides in Southern France.


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