Is the constitution of the Fifth Republic a reliable guide to the exercise of power in France?

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Ian Bishop

Is the constitution of the Fifth Republic a reliable guide to the exercise of power in France?

Central to the foundation of the Fifth Republic was the drafting of a new constitution.  This constitution, as with most other indigenous constitutions, represented, among other things,  a critique of the previous system of government.  In the case of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, much of this criticism focused on the inability of the Fourth Republic to govern effectively.  The men involved in the drafting of the new constitution were acutely aware of the importance of the new constitution in establishing a new system of government that would be able to address this problem. De Gaulle, who was granted authority by the National Assembly to draw up the new constitution in the wake of the Algerian crisis, saw the exercise of strong effective government as the central goal of the new constitution, and he set about creating a constitutional structure that would, he believed, ensure the stability and strength of the Fifth republic.

The background to the creation of the constitution of the Fifth Republic is important in understanding its prescriptive nature.  Although broad in nature, the establishment of a firm presidential role was de Gaulle’s answer to the problem of weak government under the party parliamentary system of the Fourth republic.  The vague nature of the precise powers of the President might lead one to surmise that the Constitution is too imprecise to allow us to ascribe it the status of a guide to the sources of power in France, but in fact this very imprecision is a useful indicator of the way in which the Constitution creates centres of power in the Fifth Republic.  The ill-defined powers of the President are deliberately thus, for it was de Gaulle’s intention to establish the Presidency as the key office in France, and the broad ranging and imprecise powers given to the President are designed to allow him to interpret those powers to suit the situation.  In France, previous constitutions had not been sufficiently stable or survivable to come to represent a ‘fair description of the balance of power’.  Instead, constitutions had come to represent the programmes of the ruling party of the day.  This precedent spurred the authors of the constitution of the Fifth Republic to create a lasting entity that would provide an description of the principles of French government.  Although de Gaulle was not beyond using his position as primary author of the constitution to draft a system favourable to his own ends, his belief in the propensity of the French to argue and fracture drove him to create a document that would be able to contain French divisions within the political party system rather than allowing them to fracture society as a whole.  With this consideration and motivation, the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic had, at least as its goal, the creation of  structured and coherent guidelines for the exercise of power in France.

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The constitution of the Fifth republic has, in this primary goal, been successful.  The major achievement of the constitutional arrangement of the Fifth Republic has been to shift political discussion away from the nature of the regime.  All major parties in France and the massive majority of the public, accept the constitutional framework as established by the constitution of 1958, and arguments surrounding a replacement do not feature of the French political agenda.  It has, Stevens argues, been successful in accommodating the shifting balance of power between political forces within agreed ‘ground rules’.  Indeed, the success of the French ...

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