MANY criticisms can be made of France’s Fourth Republic, that short-lived and none too happy regime, but perhaps the most serious is that it glorified irresponsibility. When the French people accepted a republican form of government in 1875, they did so because it seemed to be the one form that divided them the least. This essentially negative qualification has never completely rubbed off.
To the Frenchman the beauty of a republican regime was that it was elastic enough to be all things to all men. It could allow the disgruntled aristocrats to go on using and, if need be, inventing titles to satisfy their self-esteem in an increasingly democratic age. It could tolerate all conceivable expressions of opinion and demand a minimum of national unity and effort in the pursuit of national goals. It could allow a nation of bons vivants to go on living it up at home and still be a great power abroad. Or so, at any rate, Georges Clemenceau and his contemporaries thought.
The truth, as we now know, was that this was a splendid mirage created by the peculiar conditions of supremacy that the great powers of Europe had gained over the rest of the world toward the end of the last century. This was the heyday of that liberalism which could triumphantly proclaim, “Perish the republic rather than a principle!" — a magnificent piece of rhetoric, since it went without saying that principles could be stubbornly adhered to, but the republic would survive. Somehow it would muddle through.
With the relative decline of France’s power in the world, however, the truth of the motto was challenged. When, last May, Georges Bidault arose and once more crowed with almost macabre relish, “Perish the republic rather than a principle!” the old formula had acquired an almost oracular power. And sure enough, a few days later the Fourth Republic collapsed, as though smitten by a magic wand. The day had finally dawned when the French could not go on eating their cake and having it too; when they could no longer maintain a far-flung empire while refusing to make the necessary domestic sacrifices, and when they could no longer afford the luxury of an ideological individualism which had divided the country into a dozen political groupings and immobilized the normal processes of government.
No constitution can by itself eliminate political factionalism and ensure a two or three party system. But a constitution can aggravate a political situation already confused by a multiplicity of hypercritical and individualistic parties, and this is precisely what the constitution of the Fourth Republic did. It solemnly consecrated the supremacy of an assembly, wherein these divisions were most clearly reflected. On paper the National Assembly was omnipotent, but in practice its party divisions rendered it powerless.
Since the executive branch of government had been shorn of all its powers, there was no alternative organ capable of initiating or even of executing national policy when the legislative gears ground to a halt. The result, only too often, was paralysis. The history of the Fourth Republic is the history of paralysis enthroned as the first principle of politics.
The power of the President
If, as Talleyrand once suggested, a constitution should be short and obscure, then the new constitution of the Fifth Republic can only be considered a partial success. It is longer in words, though not in articles (92 compared with 106), than the constitution of 1946; at the same time it is richer in obscurities and ambiguities. But if a constitution is to be judged by the extent to which it mitigates the possibilities of political paralysis, then the constitution of the Fifth Republic is undoubtedly an improvement over that of the fourth.
The principal difference between them lies in the significant strengthening of the powers of the President of the republic. This change has been emphasized by moving up the enumeration of the President’s powers, which in the constitution of 1946 had been relegated to fifth place, ahead of those of the Parliament.
Yet it would be a mistake to call the new republic a presidential regime. It is, in fact, a semi-presidential regime, in which the President of the republic, who embodies “the continuity of the state” and “assures, by his arbitrage, the regular functioning of the public powers,” must delegate much of his power to a Prime Minister who, the constitution specifically prescribes, “directs the action of the government.”
When the text of the new constitution was finally made public last September, many people were surprised that General de Gaulle had not insisted on establishing a completely presidential regime. But here, as in other fields, the often stiff-necked general had clearly bent over backwards in his desire to avoid appearing as one who might harbor dictatorial ambitions.
A tradition of mediocrity
In France, as elsewhere, bad memories die hard. Ever since Prince Louis Napoleon made himself Emperor of the French in 1851 by staging a plebiscite in his favor, France has been plagued by an instinctive fear that a strong President of the republic, backed by a popular mandate, might once again make himself a dictator. To guard against this eventuality the liberal aristocrats who drew up the “organic laws” of 1873—1875, which became the constitution of the Third Republic, gave the French Parliament the right to elect the President of the republic.
This in itself need not have made it mandatory that political mediocrity should be the first criterion for the selection of presidential timber. But, in fact, so jealous were French deputies and senators of their legislative rights and powers that it became an unwritten rule that only deputies or senators could be acceptable candidates and that a weak personality should always be preferred to a strong one. Clemenceau gave the rule its classic definition during the presidential election of 1887, when he urged his colleagues, “Vote for the stupidest!”
The constitution of the Fifth Republic has finally broken with the crippling tradition of almost seventy years’ standing. The right to elect the President of the republic has been taken out of the hands of the members of Parliament; but it has not been placed — as would have been logical — in the hands of the French people. Instead, an interim solution has been invented whereby more than 75,000 electors, for the most part mayors or municipal councilors, will enjoy this right.
Critics of the new constitution have been heard to mutter that this arrangement will ensure the domination of the country over the city, and that it will permit the beetroot trust and other powerful agricultural lobbies to exercise an unwholesome pressure on the election of the President. As the first President is almost certain to be Charles de Gaulle, and as the presidential term extends a full seven years, it will not be until 1965 that we can judge whether these fears are justified.
But the fact that overseas member states of the new French Community will likewise enjoy the right to participate in the election of the President of the republic, who is also President of the Community, should — unless the Community collapses completely — hamper the backstage operations of pressure groups and sinister cabals and ensure the election of candidates of genuine stature.
The powers which the President of the republic will henceforth enjoy are considerable. He will have a suspensive veto, in that he can send back any bill passed by the two houses of Parliament and request that it be reconsidered. He can dissolve the National Assembly after consultation with the Prime Minister and the presidents of the two assemblies. This latter provision restores to the President a power he enjoyed under the Third Republic. However, only once in the seventy years of the Third Republic did a French President dare invoke this power — Marshal MacMahon in 1877 — but it was done so clumsily that it provoked a furor in the country and was never invoked again. The history of the Weimar Republic, furthermore, during which the Reichstag was dissolved six times in eleven years without ensuring political stability, is a warning against the belief that the dissolution is enough to bring recalcitrant deputies into line or a working majority into being.
The Prime Minister’s task
More important are the powers which the new constitution places in the hands of the Prime Minister and the government which he heads. These powers include everything from formulating the country’s policy to assuring the execution of the laws. The Prime Minister is evidently intended to be the link between the President of the republic and the Parliament, and it is to be presumed that he will almost invariably be a member of one of its two houses. Though the Prime Minister is named by the President, his program and his colleagues must be accepted by the Parliament. If we were to imagine Senator Lyndon Johnson being called upon by President Eisenhower to form a cabinet, which would then meet under the President’s chairmanship, we should have some idea of how the new French system of government is supposed to work.
Such a bicephalous system of government inevitably leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It is not clear whether or not the President can refuse to accept any of the Prime Minister’s choices for other ministerial posts, nor is it clear just how much pressure he can bring to bear on the Prime Minister in the choice of colleagues or in the general conduct of policy.
The much-debated provision which obliges all cabinet ministers to yield their parliamentary mandates upon assuming office obviously opens the doors of the government to nonparliamentarian “technicians.”But these technicians will still have to get their programs accepted by the French Parliament — a job which only the political professionals, the heads of the various political factions, can effect. Today, as yesterday, there is no prospect that French politics can be “depoliticized.”
The constitution of the Fifth Republic, like all constitutions, is the creature of circumstance. The post of Prime Minister has obviously been given considerable scope to suit the personal tastes of General de Gaulle, who has never felt at home at the old game of slapping political backs, hobnobbing on parliamentary benches, and buttonholing reluctant voters in assembly corridors. He would much prefer to be back at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, putting the final, perfect touches to the third volume of his memoirs. It is his evident intention to let the Prime Minister carry out the vital but for him disagreeable chores that all parliamentary life demands.
Much will depend, therefore, on whom he selects as his future Prime Minister. De Gaulle is evidently persuaded that there can be no prospect of parliamentary stability in France without a strong Socialist party. But the Prime Minister should also be someone who enjoys some measure of popularity among the Algerians. It will be difficult to find a man who will satisfy the Socialists and those on the other side of the Mediterranean.
In the final analysis, General de Gaulle is the only Frenchman who can maintain acceptable relations with Parliament, retain some control over the army high command in Algiers, and inspire any confidence in the leaders of the rebel FLN.
Today men like Ferhat Abbas, the head of the so-called “provisional government of Algeria,”know — as do the Tunisians and the Moroccans — that they can no longer wait around for the present French government to collapse, so as to be able to extract more favorable terms from the next. General de Gaulle’s tall, commanding presence will, whatever the future may hold, ensure some measure of that governmental stability which France has so sorely lacked during the last twelve years.