During the Fourth Republic, the French political system experienced much instability and volatility. Governments were frequently brought down, resulting in paralysis and inefficiency in governance. After successions of politicians were unable to solve the problem of Algeria, they looked to leadership of Gen. Charles de Gaulle. In 1958, under a constitution tailor-made for him, the Fifth Republic was established. The National Assembly was weakened in its ability to paralyze and destabilize governance by rules and changes in procedure. The office of President was strengthened with oversight over the legislature and, popularly elected by 1962, responsible to the people. These structural features, among others, have served to stabilize the volatility of the previous Fourth Republic.
The French Fourth Republic was established after World War 2, but maintained most of the features of the Third Republic. As such, it was dominated by an overly powerful legislature and, like was the case with the Third Republic, this proved to be highly volatile. Twenty presidents and seventeen prime ministers were in office over a twelve-year period, demonstrating the excessive instability of government. An excess of parties divided interests rather than aggregating them, and ambitious, undisciplined deputies easily managed to topple governments hoping to assume ministerial office. Although the National Assembly was supreme, it too could not provide effective leadership. (Safran 117).
When drafting the constitution for the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle and his advisers tried to create a strong government which would not be plagued by the volatility of the past republics. Such a government, they hoped, would be able to make decisions without having to worry about excessive parliamentary interference or being brought down. To do so, they created a system with a mixture of a powerful executive and weakened legislature. Though initially elected through an electoral college, since 1962 the President has been elected through a popular vote (Safran 122). The President is thus chosen by and is responsible to the people. This direct responsibility to the masses, a manifestation of the French Jacobin tendency, is essential to the stability of a country with such a conflictual culture.
To ensure stability in government, the Presidency of the 5th Republic is endowed with what has been called ‘near-monarchical’ powers and has numerous checks over the legislature. He may ask the legislature to reexamine all or a part of any bill he does not like. He is given the ability to interpret the constitution, and thus may submit to the Constitutional Council an act of parliament or treaty of doubtful constitutionality. The President may also submit legislative proposals to the public in the form of referenda, circumventing the legislative process. Significantly, the President may dissolve the National Assembly and call for new elections. He is also given “emergency powers,” to be used during times of crisis, which allows to govern without time-consuming, deliberative parliamentary processes (Safran 126). This extensive political authority has enabled the President of the Fifth Republic to serve in the manner de Gaulle envisioned: as a ‘mediator’ whose oversight of the legislature prevents the instability and paralysis that plagued the past republics, and whose ability to influence the policy-making process enables him to govern decisively.
The President’s powers extend beyond the legislative process. He has a wide range of appointive powers, being able to appoint without interruption the Prime Minister, military officers, political advisers, and some members of several judicial bodies. The ability to appoint the Prime Minister, who serves as the head of the National Assembly, has helped maintain government stability. When the President is from the same party of the majority of delegates, his choice of the Prime Minister is likely more agreeable to the Assembly. As a result, the government is less likely to be brought down and its policies more readily accepted. The President also retains the power to appoint ambassadors and other high civilian personnel, to receive foreign dignitaries, sign bills and promulgate laws and decrees, issue pardons, preside over cabinet sessions and send messages to parliament — all powers traditionally associated with chiefs of state (Safran 126). The President is thus provided with not only political authority, but symbolic authority as well. He represents the “heart and soul” of France, clearly setting and directing the nation’s agenda.
The National Assembly of the Fifth Republic is significantly less volatile than those of past republics, though its structure remains largely unchanged. This is a result of a number of changes in its function. To prevent a large number of parties from participating in the Assembly, which served to divide interests in the Fourth Republic and contributed to its instability, the number of deputies needed to constitute a party was raised to twenty from fourteen. This forces small contingents of deputies to align with larger ones, thereby aggregating interests. The decision-making role of the Assembly is also limited, and the areas for which it may pass legislation are clearly enumerated in the constitution. What the Assembly may not legislate for is done through decrees, ordinances, and regulations, all produced by the government (Safran 133). Limiting the powers of the Assembly limits its ability to influence and, in turn, paralyze the governance of the state. The government may also ask the legislature to delegate to it the power to issue decrees in areas normally under parliamentary jurisdiction, thereby providing further ways for the government to prevent legislative paralysis. The government is able to decide how much time is allocated to debate on parts of a bill, what bills are to be discussed, and can prevent amendments to a bill. Members of the legislature may not filibuster (Safran 133). These rules also help prevent legislative gridlock, enabling effective and efficient governance.
The ability for the Assembly to bring down the government has also been significantly curtailed. In the Fourth Republic, members of standing committees in the legislature often offered counterproposals to government bills designed to embarrass the government and bring it down. The constitution of the Fifth Republic thus significantly curtails the amount of standing committees permitted, forces them to work within carefully limited periods of time, and forbids them from producing substitute bills (Safran 134). This has helped insulate the government from the embarrassment of substitute bills, which in the past had resulted in their collapse. Motions of censure, which can also bring down the government, are also more difficult to pass in the Fifth Republic. They require the signatures of at least one-tenth of all deputies in the Assembly, who may only cosponsor one such motion during each parliamentary session. A ‘cooling-off’ period of forty eighty hours must precede the vote of such a motion, and the motion only carries if an absolute majority of the entire membership of the Assembly supports it. That these rules have reduced the volatility of government can clearly be seen in the fact that only one motion of censure, occurring in 1962, has passed in the Fifth Republic (Safran 135). The ability for the legislature to contribute to governmental instability has thus been significantly curtailed by rules and regulations placed on the legislature’s committees and motions of censures, rules which in effect help protect the government from being brought down.
Deputies in the Fourth Republic would be willing to unseat a government with the hope that they would then get a ministerial position themselves in the next cabinet. However, if they were to then be ousted from that cabinet, they would still retain their Assembly seat. As a result, deputies frequently tried to topple governments for their own possible political gain. Additionally, the accumulation of many positions tended to undermine a deputy’s ability to devote time and energy to each individual position, creating inefficiency in government. To counteract the tendency to bring down governments in search for ‘portfolios’, the Fifth Republic constitution requires deputies to resign their Assembly seats when entering the cabinet. Furthermore, parliament passed a law in 1985 to limit the accumulation of elective offices to no more than two (Safran 137). Though the ‘incompatibility’ and ‘cumulation’ rules are often violated, they try to deter deputies from bringing down governments and accumulating too many offices. They were designed around the presumption that deputies won’t jeopardize their own seat in the Assembly for a cabinet position, and are thus less likely to try to bring down a government and its cabinet. By limiting the amount of positions a deputy can hold, he or she will be able to devote more time to effectively serving the positions already held. As a result of these rules, the government is made less volatile and more effective. Finally, ministerial appointments have become apolitical, with highly skilled members of the elite civil service often being called on to serve (notes 10/31). The professionalization within the cabinet, along with its apolitical nature, have further undermined the desire and ability of deputies within the National Assembly to seek ministerial office for ‘portfolio’ and political gain.
Another change in the Fifth Republic which stabilized the volatility of the Fourth Republic involved the electoral system. In the Fourth Republic, deputies were elected to the National Assembly through the system of proportional representation. This system enabled many parties, including those on the fringe of the spectrum, to enter the legislature (Safran 150). This further served to divide interests rather than aggregating them, making it near impossible for governments to build majority support and govern effectively. To combat this, the electoral system adopted in 1958 was based on the single-member district, in which a single candidate must obtain an absolute majority of votes cast in his or her district to secure victory (Safran 151). This effectively cut down the number of parties represented in the Assembly, therefore making it easier for governments to command legislative support and coalition-build. Though the details of the electoral system are not fixed by the constitution but rather are changed by organic law, the single-member district election has remained in practice except for a brief period in the 1980s.
Changes to the political system in the Fifth Republic have stabilized the volatility which plagued the Fourth Republic. The popularly-elected Presidency is endowed with extensive powers and has often wielded de facto authority over the legislature, enabling it to govern without ouster or parliamentary interference. The National Assembly, meanwhile, has been curtailed in its ability to bring down governments through checks on censure proceedings and the incompatibility rule. The implementation of single-member district elections has significantly cut down on the number of parties in the Assembly, enabling governments to garner greater legislative support and therefore govern more effectively. Because of these structural changes, the Fifth Republic has been much more stable than those of the past. Its institutions are not paralyzed in their ability to deal with the issues and problems facing France and, as a result, are now widely accepted by the French citizenry.