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France entered the election under terrorist attack following 18 months of living in a “state of emergency”. The 11 candidates standing in the first round were addressing an electorate whose members generally agreed (according to a Harris poll) that “All politicians are liars”. Seven of the 11 candidates wanted to leave the European Union, or the euro, or both. Others were campaigning for radical constitutional reform. Analysts, including the political counsellor of the outgoing prime minister, were questioning whether an elected executive presidency, the cornerstone of the present constitution, was still a viable form of government. It looked like a recent crisis, but in reality the wheels have been coming off the Fifth Republic for many years.

The French constitution designed by Charles de Gaulle created a delicate balance between democracy, ensured by parliamentary government, and efficiency, supplied by an executive presidency. It was the child of nearly 100 years of political chaos. The Third Republic, founded in 1871 following defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, expired in 1940 with defeat and Nazi occupation. In 70 years, it had endowed the country with more than 100 feeble administrations. Its final ignominious act was to hand supreme power to the 84-year-old Marshal Pétain, who proclaimed his disastrous policy of “collaboration” with the Nazi regime. The post-war Fourth Republic, designed as a parliamentary democracy with a titular head of state, lasted for 13 years and proved to be even less stable. During that time, the United Kingdom had four prime ministers; France had 50 changes of government. The Fourth Republic ended with the country bitterly divided over the question of Algerian independence, on the brink of a coup d’état and civil war.

By 1958 a stronger constitution was urgently needed and de Gaulle’s solution was for the president (himself) to be directly elected for seven years while the National Assembly, led by a prime minister of the president’s choice, would sit for only five. In this way, presidential power could be regularly checked by a legislative election. De Gaulle formed his parliamentary majorities from his own party, with alliances where necessary with right-wing, centrist or even left-wing groups. Where he was challenged, he did not hesitate to use the weapons of referendum or presidential decree to force through the reforms he required. Opposition to his rule eventually crystallised under the leadership of François Mitterrand’s Socialist Party, and when de Gaulle left office, after losing a referendum in 1969, an orthodox “Left-Right” party system was in place. It is that system that now lies in ruins. Not for the first time, it seems, de Gaulle may have overestimated his fellow-countrymen.

A constitution based on a directly-elected presidency has an inbuilt weak point: it is heavily dependent on the integrity of the president. At first, following de Gaulle’s departure, under two conventional presidents — Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing — things worked reasonably well. There were several political scandals, but they did not undermine the constitution. Then came the presidential election of 1981 and the arrival of François Mitterrand. The decline of the Fifth Republic can be summarised in three names: Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy. Of these by far the most destructive was the first.

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