Short history of the Five Republics of France

Written by on February 22, 2021 in Culture & Language

Painting of the Tennis Court Oath, men voting to establish a new constitution in France in 1789

You may have heard of the “Fifth Republic of France” and wondered what it meant. Hasn’t France been a republic since long ago, back when they stormed the Bastille and all that? Well, yes and no.

After the monarchy fell, a republic was indeed established but it didn’t last long, and today is referred to as the First Republic. It was followed by a series of governments – empires, monarchies, and more republics, all the way up to today’s Fifth Republic.

The First Republic, 1792-1804

It began with bread prices rising which caused food riots. Protesting women marched on Versailles and the riots spread. The storming of the Bastille in 1789 was followed by a new constitutional monarchy. The Tennis Court Oath in June 1789 (above) marked the establishment of what became the National Assembly. However in 1792 the National Assembly decided to get rid of the king and create France’s first republic. It did not go well.

Yes, there were important accomplishments like the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Others were more dubious, like the adoption of a new calendar. But characters like Marat and Robespierre battled for power. And The Terror was unleashed, with the “national razor” (the guillotine) getting quite a workout.

Eventually it led to a coup by a fellow named Napoleon Bonaparte. You may have heard of him.

Bonaparte declared France an empire (today called the First Empire) and crowned himself emperor. Things went swimmingly until a certain incident at Waterloo in 1815. After the empire collapsed, the monarchy was restored, with various Bourbon kings ruling France until 1848.

The Second Republic, 1848-1852

In 1848 a wave of revolutions spread across Europe, toppling one government after another, including the French monarchy. It was replaced by the Second Republic, formed by a coalition of politicians with an elected president. One candidate ran a platform of “order at all costs” and won decisively. It helped that he was named Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of you know who.

The second Empire 1852-1870

Having learned a few things from his uncle, Louis-Napoleon soon led a coup and established the Second Empire, with himself as Emperor.

The Third Republic, 1870-1940

Imagining himself a military genius like Uncle Napoleon, Louis-Napoleon went to war against Prussia in 1870. He had inferior forces and no allies. What could possibly go wrong? He soon found out when he was captured by the Prussians, along with many of his troops. That was the end of the Second Empire.

A provisional government was then established. It was dominated by monarchists who tried to put a new king on the throne. This didn’t work out, however, and republican forces eventually took control of the government. The provisional government became a permanent government, the Third Republic.

Rather than having a single, powerful figure like a king, the Third Republic went the opposite direction and invested most power in the legislature. This led to shifting parliamentary coalitions and regular cabinet reshuffling. The average cabinet lasted only eight months. Despite this instability, the Third Republic managed to last 70 years, still the longest lasting of France’s five republics.

Those 70 years saw a huge expansion in France’s colonial empire and crises like the Dreyfus Affair, the First World War, and the Great Depression. The Third Republic survived all of these, but its death knell finally came with France’s 1940 defeat at the hands of Germany. Perhaps hoping for a kind of king once more, the parliament dissolved the Third Republic and handed full power to war hero Marshall Petain. He led what is today known as the Vichy government, with a competing government-in-exile run by Charles de Gaulle.

Fourth Republic, 1946-1958

The Fourth Republic was structured much like the Third, with a president largely without power and strong legislature. Politicians were elected according to proportional representation which led to multiple parties winning seats and made making decisions almost impossible. There more 16 prime ministers during the Fourth Republic. France lurched from crisis to crisis.

Things came to a head in 1958 as France struggled to decolonize. There was strong opposition within France to Algerian independence and part of the army openly rebelled. Important generals threatened a coup unless de Gaulle was returned to power. They sent paratroopers to capture Corsica in case anyone missed their point. The Fourth Republic soon collapsed, and de Gaulle was asked to preside over a transitional government and write a new constitution.

The Fifth Republic, 1958-present

The new constitution, this time featuring a strong president, was approved by over 80% of voters and remains in place today. Two notable changes have been made since its establishment—the shortening of presidential terms from seven years to five, and the creation of a Constitutional Court that can rule on the constitutionality of new laws. While there are occasional calls for a Sixth Republic, they have never gained much traction, and in a few years the Fifth Republic will become France’s longest-lasting…

History of the French flag
The French Revolution Calendar how France moved to a timezone so complicated no one knew what day it was!

Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence.  He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in ProvenceRead more at Life in Provence.

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