Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A History of French Constitutions

France has been a key player in European politics for well over a thousand years. It was one of the first nation states to emerge out of the chaos of the middle ages. Perhaps this is the reason for the markedly nationalist tradition of the French. However, although the French unite in the love for their country, it seems to be the only fact which unites them in the long run.

France has been a nation of contradictions. Divisions such as the nobles against the peasants, urban against rural, Parisian against provincial and Catholic against anti-clerical have been prominent at certain times and sometimes continue to be even now (Hoggart & Johnson, p. 47). Recent divisions include the French speaking native people against the immigrants who are mainly from North Africa. The struggle for power and prominence between such interests has dictated the course of French history especially from 1789. At times, these differences have led to violent upheavals and at other instances have led to political maneuverings and bargaining among different interests groups. These developments have affected the French constitutions, numbering more than a dozen beginning from the first constitution of note which was passed in 1791.

Another important factor is the representative and plebiscitarian traditions of the constitutions (Ehrmann, p. 7). The latter was an important tool for rulers to assert far reaching personal power, especially after a prolonged crisis. Napoleon I and Napoleon III directly appealed to the electorate when they established the empires and so did De Gaulle when the Fifth Republic was formed. It could be said that, especially in De Gaulle’s case, the electorate appealed to a dominating personality to intervene and check the increasing level of anarchy due to the prevailing political system of the time.

Revolution of 1789

The French revolution of 1789 was the first violent conflict in the struggle between the different social groups in the country. In simple terms, it was a struggle between the first two Estates-the clerics and the nobles-who enjoyed wide privileges and the Third Estate-the peasant and the bourgeoisie. However, the contradictory French society was such that it could not be stated as simply as that. The first two Estates were divided against themselves and so was the Third Estate up to a certain level. There was a clear antagonism between the Greater Nobles and the Lesser Nobles and also the higher clerics-bishops, archbishops- and the parish priests. Some of the nobles had particular hatred for the king’s officials who had total authority in the provinces.

The divisions between the Third Estate did not manifest itself in the early years of the revolution. In 1789, it was a nationwide upheaval which led to the downfall of the despotic rule of the ‘ancien regime’. If the uprising was limited to Paris, the French would most probably not have been celebrating ‘Bastille Day’, because the attack on the Bastille either would not have happened or even if it happened its implications would have been much lesser. A clear indication of what might have happened in 1789 had the provinces not supported the revolution was seen almost a century later in 1871. The Paris Commune would not have died in two months had the provinces supported it.

The uprising in the provinces was mainly a food riot in response to the high price of bread due to the extremely bad harvests in 1788 (Peacock, p. 25). There was still a considerable section of royalists in the provinces. Also, the anti-clerical stand of the revolutionaries also alienated some rural populations and those who had supported the revolution initially turned against it later. Even in the National Assembly in Paris, the republicans-the Jacobins-were a minority who sat on the left side, thus becoming the first ‘leftists’ of political science history. Therefore the French constitution of 1791 was not a republican one. The king still had nominal power and could veto any legislation up to six years (Peacock, p. 33). This was a strange outcome for a revolution. It was as if the revolution had not yet begun.

The flight of the king from Paris and the wars started in 1792 played in to the hands of the Republicans and the violent phase of the Revolution began. A new Republican constitution was passed in 1793. The same year, both king and the queen, and many enemies of the Jacobins were guillotined. Much more executions followed in the next year. However, to many, this was too much to tolerate. When Robspierre fell, the violent phase ended abruptly. The hard line republicans were discredited. The new constitution of 1795 was much more moderate, in some ways returning to 1791 except for the fact that there was to be no monarchy. The days of the monarchs seemed to be at the end.

However, it was not to the case, as shown later in the history of France. Unlike the U.S. Constitution which in some ways gave rise to the French Revolution, the latter never answered the question of authority. Six years after 1789, the aristocracy and the church still had a somewhat significant role in France, which would increase gradually to be culminated during the reign of Charles X. The contradictions between social forces were not reconciled by the revolution. There was too much blood in the hands of everyone for them to arrive at a common loyalty. In some aspects, the revolution had returned ‘back to square one’.

The First Empire

The history of France in the decade starting from 1797 is the history of the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. He faced strong opposition from the republican elements in his drive to attain total power. Then he appealed to the people who granted him everything he wanted. Napoleon used the promise of past glories, egalitarianism and allegiance to the revolutionary principles to woo different sections of the populace. His appeal was irresistible to the nationalistic French. Except for the extreme republicans and clericals, he was supported by the people in general.

The first constitutional step of his ascendancy was the constitution of 1799, which established the Consulate and effectively granted Bonaparte wide powers as the first Consul. A tri-cameral legislature was formed to accommodate all sections of the society, including the conservatives. This Constitution was amended first in 1802 and then in 1804 when he became Emperor. Napoleon rose due to the political anarchy prevailing at the time, just as De Gaulle in 1958. Napoleon’s plebiscites were justified on the ground that the people were being given the opportunity to elect or perpetuate the powers of their ruler. Meanwhile, the threat of social chaos and anarchy at the removal of the great leader was also emphasized.

This threat of returning chaos was not totally based on Bonapartist fantasies. There was the requirement for a uniting figure above the populace to unite different factions to a common nation. The implications of this fact became evident after Napoleon fell in 1814 and enabled his dramatic, but short lived, return in 1815.

Bourbons and Orleans

The reign of Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, saw the French lawmakers trying to balance different interests in a common ground on one hand and appeasing the victorious European powers on the other. A bicameral legislator was established as a way to give the aristocracy the national representation (de Dijn, 2005), which was also intended to be a controlling mechanism of extreme republican forces. However, this Upper House was unwilling to check the power of the extremists of the other end, the ultra-royalists. The king understood the dangers of the rise of them but could not stop it. It was the king’s brother who led these forces and his succession of the throne in 1824 as Charles X was the culmination of the rise of the Ultras.

It was no wonder that the Upper House was abolished after the overthrow of Charles X and the investiture of Louis Philippe. His reign was important in two aspects. The ‘doing nothing’ approach of the king and Guizot, his Prime Minister for the last eight years, caused the rise of Bonapartism. Meanwhile the industrialization gave rise to a new class of industrial labour. This was the ground up on which socialism grew rapidly.

Second Republic and Second Empire

The brief life time of the Second Republic was characterized by the competition between Socialism, Republicanism and Bonapartism. In March 1848, when Paris rose up and like in 1789, was supported by the provinces. But in June, when there was fresh unrest, the socialists received no outside support (Peacock, p. 116). Thus, the middle class Republicans prevailed. However, in no time, the new president of the republic robbed its gains. The approval given by the electorate showed that despite everything, the French population was still largely suspicious of republics. It is no wonder that the aristocracy withstood all upheavals from 1789.

The Second Empire and its constitution were based on the plebiscitarian approach. Napoleon III strived to justify his actions through popular approval just like his more illustrious uncle. Knowing the importance of the different sections of the populations, he tried to gain support of all groups but in the end managed to alienate all. His involvement in the Italian struggle and the Mexican adventure alienated practically everyone, albeit for different reasons. Military victories should have bolstered the national pride, the most potent weapon of a French political leader. However, the aimless vacillations between different ends achieved the exact opposite. When the Empire fell, no one tried to prevent it.

Paris Commune and Third Republic

For two months in 1871, Paris was under the control of the anarchists and Marxists. The working class, which had been suppressed in the Second Empire, now ruled the city. New political groups such as the feminists also found a favorable environment in the Commune. However, it did not receive enough support from outside and was brutally crushed.

At this time, the monarchist forces were still very active in the country. Only a dispute over which flag to adopt and the powers of the king prevented a constitutional monarchy from being created. This is also an indication of the suspicion the French people had for republics.

In such a backdrop, it is a miracle that the Third Republic, established by the Constitutional Laws of 1875, survived for 65 years. The extreme right and extreme left were permanent enemies of the Republic. Once more, a bicameral legislature was adopted as a means of checking the extreme republican influence. The executive was also not very powerful and therefore led to many problems when there were no strong governments.

The Fourth Republic

The dramatic collapse of the Third Republic in 1940 was a shock for the nationalistic French people. However, after the initial collapse, they found their resolve again to resist the invader. After liberation, the Fourth Republic was established which could be described as a rebirth of the Third Republic. Therefore, it had the same fault of the executive being weak. Like in the Third Republic, it was the parliamentary traditions which were upheld. However, its birth was inauspicious. While 9 million voted for the constitution in the referendum, 8 million voted against and more than that number abstained.

During the Fourth Republic, the differences between social groups were even more acute. The working class was organized under the Communists, who received 20-30% of the vote throughout the elections during the Fourth Republic, often becoming the single largest party. That an essentially a foreign doctrine found so much support in the nationalist French public is a puzzle in itself. However, the result of this was obvious. No government could find a strong majority. During times of reconstruction and decolonization, weak governments increased the woes of the French.

There was one man who could have united the French. He was the hero of World War II, De Gaulle.

The Fifth Republic

For nearly a decade from 1954, French politics was about Algeria. It was a military uprising in that country which brought De Gaulle to power. Therefore, some argue that it was a coup. Whatever it was, he received wide popular support. Knowing that he was popular than anyone in the country, De Gaulle started, just like the Napoleons, to follow the plebiscitarian tradition.

The constitution of the Fifth Republic answered the basic defect prevalent in the preceding two Republics and established a strong executive. The electorate overwhelmingly approved the constitution but it was an approval for De Gaulle rather than the constitution (Friedrich CJ 1959). He further increased the power of the presidency by appealing to the people to endorse a Constitutional amendment to enable the popular election of the president. Although the legislature disapproved this, the people gave their support. Therefore, De Gaulle brought the plebiscitarian tradition to a level never seen for a Century in France.

Since the approval of the Constitution was mainly an approval for De Gaulle, there were some doubts over the success of the Fifth Republic once he left the stage. However, the French politics found it not very difficult to adapt to the changes of times and even went through several periods of cohabitation when the President and the Prime Minister were from different parties.


De Dijn A (2005) Balancing the Constitution: Bicameralism in Post-revolutionary France, 1814-1831 European Review of History vol. 12 no. 2 pp. 249-268 24 January 2011

Ehrmann HW (1968) Politics in France Little Brown, Boston

Friedrich CJ (1959) The New French Constitution in Political and Historical Perspective Harvard Law Review vol.72 no. 5 pp. 801-837 24 January 2011

Hanson SE (2010) The Founding of the French Third Republic Comparative Political Studies vol. 43 issue 8/9 pp. 1023-1058 24 January 2011

Hoggart R, Johnson D (1987) An Idea of Europe Chatto and Windus, London

Peacock HL (1982) A History of Modern Europe 1789-1981 7th edn. Heinemann Educational