The beginning of French politics as we know it

Paris Letter: Sixty years ago, General Charles de Gaulle created the Fifth Republic

French president Charles de Gaulle (centre) in Brazzaville, French Equatorial Africa (modern-day Republic of the Congo) in 1958.

France’s Fifth Republic was born 60 years ago on Tuesday, when General Charles de Gaulle published a new constitution. It was the beginning of French politics as we know it.

The maverick writer and future culture minister André Malraux orchestrated a showy ceremony on the Place de la République, replete with streamers, flags and flowers. Malraux had a 40-metre high “V” erected behind the statue at the centre of the square, symbolising the Roman numeral “five” but also the “V” of victory.

At the appointed time, de Gaulle pulled up in a black Citroën. He moved his ungainly, six-foot, three-inch frame slowly up the steps to the platform, paused and raised his arms in the “V” sign.

Three-thousand policemen, armed with truncheons and tear gas cannisters, were deployed in blue vans around the square to counter left-wing protesters. In a ritual repeated countless times since, 10 demonstrators and six riot policemen ended up in hospital. Eighty-seven people were arrested.


At the liberation of Paris 12 years earlier, de Gaulle had convinced the French that the US-led allied victory was theirs, that la France éternelle had, like him, resisted Nazi occupation.

Though de Gaulle is now regarded as the greatest Frenchman of the 20th century, the left long considered him a dictator

Disgusted by postwar political squabbling, de Gaulle went home to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises and sulked for 12 years. The parliamentary system fostered chronic instability, with governments changing every six months. The war in Algeria almost brought civil war to metropolitan France.

In the spring of 1958, General Jacques Massu hatched "Operation Resurrection" to bring de Gaulle back to power. Civilian authorities welcomed him as a saviour. If they hadn't, Massu was planning a coup on behalf of de Gaulle. At a press conference in May, de Gaulle asked "Why should I, at the age of 67, begin a career as a dictator?"

De Gaulle endowed France with nuclear weapons, a belief in French universalism and grandeur, and a seat at the UN Security Council. He was lucid about the difficulty of governing such an unruly people. "How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?" he famously quipped.

March 1990: West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, left, with French president François Mitterand and the taoiseach, Charles Haughey, at the EU summit in Dublin

Though de Gaulle is now regarded as the greatest Frenchman of the 20th century, the left long considered him a dictator. In 1965, the socialist politician François Mitterrand published a book about de Gaulle titled The permanent coup d'état.

Synthesis between monarchy and republic

De Gaulle asked his most faithful lieutenant, Michel Debré, to draw up the constitution. "I was trying to create a synthesis between monarchy and republic," de Gaulle was later quoted as saying. Not unlike Emmanuel Macron's en même temps.

The constitutional expert Maurice Duverger coined the phrase "republican monarchy" to describe the presidential office created by and for de Gaulle. The French president appoints ministers and presides over cabinet meetings, chooses all civil and military officials, and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He has the right to rule by decree and can suspend the constitution altogether in the event of a national emergency.

After being de Gaulle's fiercest opponent, Mitterrand was so monarchical during his 1981–1995 rule that humorists referred to him as <em>Dieu</em>

The ceremony on the Place de la République launched the campaign for a referendum on the new constitution. It passed by a stunning 80 per cent majority on September 28th. De Gaulle was inaugurated as the first president of the Fifth Republic the following January. But the May ’68 revolution was clearly a rejection of de Gaulle’s authoritarianism. He left office the following year, after losing a referendum on institutional reform.

Presidential candidates, from Jean-Marie Le Pen on the far right to Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left, promised to move to a more democratic Sixth Republic if elected. But if they ever reached office, they would doubtless have learned to love de Gaulle's constitution. After being de Gaulle's fiercest opponent, Mitterrand was so monarchical during his 1981–1995 rule that humorists referred to him as Dieu.

French President-elect Emmanuel Macron gestures as he speaks during a victory celebration outside the Louvre museum in Paris, France, Sunday, May 7, 2017. Speaking to thousands of supporters from the Louvre Museum’s courtyard, Macron said that France is facing an “immense task” to rebuild European unity, fix the economy and ensure security against extremist threats. (Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP)

Bonapartiste and monarchique are the criticisms most often levelled at Macron. Since his solemn walk across the courtyard of the Louvre on the night of his election, to Macron's use of châteaux at Versailles and Chambord, "Jupiter" too wields the symbols of monarchy.

De Gaulle wrote the script for French leaders' solitary exercise of power. When he appointed himself leader of the French Resistance in 1940, de Gaulle said he felt "alone and without protection, like a man at the edge of an ocean saying he will swim across it".

Being president is always an honour, sometimes a privilege, Macron told a class full of 11-year-olds when he visited a school with the minister of education on Monday.“Some days are easy. Others are not.”