Why Is France in Its Fifth Republic? | History

The French presidential election is upon us, and with it comes another opportunity for a populist leader to drastically change the course of the European Union. Just as Theresa May of the Conservative Party took over in the United Kingdom, but Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party failed to win his presidential bid in Austria, the French election is just one more showdown between the competing ideologies of nationalism and globalism. French citizens will cast their firsts vote for one of eleven candidates on April 23. None of the candidates are expected to win an outright majority, which means a run-off election will be held on May 7 between the two candidates who win the most votes. At this point, polls show a close race between Marine Le Pen (a far-right leader who plans to ban all legal immigration, take France out of the EU, and has ties to neo-Nazis), Emmanuel Macron (a centrist and former economy minister) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (a far-left candidate who promises to raise the minimum wage and limit the work week to 35 hours).

While the world waits to see who will be the next leader of the Fifth Republic, some Americans may be wondering—what’s a fifth republic and what were the four others? To help guide you through the intricacies of French political history, we’ve assembled a breakdown of the previous democratic governments in the land of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The Current Government

The Fifth Republic is the name of France’s current government. It began in 1958, after a coup at the hands of the French military in colonial Algeria convinced officials in Paris to dissolve Parliament. Fearing that the military could extend their control beyond Africa, the government called former general Charles de Gaulle out of retirement to hold the country together, as he did during the post-liberation years of World War II. To do so, he crafted a new constitution. Under this government, the president has substantial power, holds a term of five years (it was originally seven) and, following a change to the constitution in 1962, is directly elected by the French people. (de Gaulle held the position until 1968.)

This system of government differs dramatically from previous republics, which relied on parliamentary rule. In the Fifth Republic, the head-of-state appoints a prime minister to lead the Parliament (which is comprised of a Senate and a National Assembly), controls the armed forces and France’s nuclear arsenal, can dissolve Parliament, and can hold referendums on laws or constitutional changes.

One caveat to the president’s powers is the possibility of “cohabitation,” when the president is from a different political party…

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