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France: Fourth Republic (1947-1959)

Last modified: 2013-11-30 by ivan sache
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Flag of France - Image by Željko Heimer, 22 September 2001

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History and institutions of the Fourth Republic

The birth of the Fourth Republic

In 1945, following the German capitulation, the future of the country and its institutions was debated. The two possible solutions were either to reestablish the "Constitution of 1875" or to draft a new Constitution.

On 21 October 1945, a referendum was held about the Constitution. 96% of the voters asked for a new Constitution, while 66% of the voters agreed to restrict the powers of the new Assembly to the writing of the Constitution. The French citizens considered the weakness of the executive power under the Third Republic as responsible of the 1940 disaster and seemed to follow De Gaulle's political views. On 20 January 1946, De Gaulle, upset by the régime des partis (regime ruled by the specific interests of the parties) resigned and started a traversée du désert (time in the wilderness) that would last for the next 12 years.

On 5 May 1946, a proposal of Constitution was submitted to a second referendum. The Assembly would exercise most of the powers, elect the head of government and the President of the Republic, whose functions would be purely ceremonial. The Senate would be suppressed. The citizens rejected the proposal (10,584,359/9,454,034), mostly because it seemed to be too favorable to the Parti Communiste Français.

The Constitution of 1946

On 13 October 1946, a new proposal was submitted to a third referendum. The power of the President of the Republic would be slightly increased and a "Council of the Republic" would replace the Senate. However, most powers would be exercised by the Assembly and the parties. The citizens approved the proposal (9,002,870/7,790,856) but 31% of the electors did not vote. De Gaulle described the Constitution as "absurd and outdated ... approved by 9 millions of electors, rejected by another 8 millions, and ignored by yet another 8 millions".

The end of the Fourth Republic

The Fourth Republic was tainted by political instability the issue of decolonization.
On 13 May 1958, the mob seized the building of the General-Government in Algiers, and a "Committee of Civil and Army Public Security" was set up, led by General Massu. On the balcony of the General-Government building, General Salan, head of the French Army in Algeria, said on 15 May 1958 "Vive de Gaulle". From his refuge of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, De Gaulle replied two days later that he was prepared to assumer les pouvoirs de la République (to assume the powers of the Republic).
On 1 June 1958, De Gaulle read a short text at the Assembly. Invoking the risk of civil war, he asked for the full powers for six months and promised to submit a new Constitution proposal to a referendum. De Gaulle was invested by 329 votes against 224, with full powers granted on 2 June 1958. The Constitutional Law voted on 3 June 1958 specified that De Gaulle should draft a new Constitution within four months.

Source: P. Masson. La IVe République, 1944-1958. Histoire de France Illustrée (Larousse, 1988)

Ivan Sache, 9 July 2001