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France: Fourth Republic (1947-1959)

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[France]by António Martins

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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 coming back to the 'Constitution of 1875' or writing a new Constitution.

On 21 October 1945, a referendum was held about the Constitution. 96% of the voters asked for a new Constitution, and 66% of them 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 of 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 his 12-year traversée du désert ('time in the wilderness').

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

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 should be slightly increased and a 'Council of the Republic' should replace the Senate. However, most powers should 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 De Gaulle described the Constitution as 'absurd and outdated ...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 8 millions of them, ignored by another 8 millions of them.'

The end of the Fourth Republic

The Fourth Republic was tainted by political instability and its inability to solve the problem of decolonization.

On 13 May 1958, the crowd seized the building of the General-Government in Algiers, and a 'Comiitee of Civil and Army Public Security' was ruled 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". De Gaulle answered two days later from his refuge of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises that he was prepared to assumer les pouvoirs de la République ('assume the powers of the Republic').

On 1 June 1958, De Gaulle read a short text in the Assembly. Invoking the risk of civil war, he asked for the full powers for six months and promised to submit his new Constitution proposal to a referendum. He was invested by 329 votes against 224. The full powers were voted on 2 June 1958. The constitutional law giving De Gaulle four months to elaborate a new constiution was voted on 3 June 1958.

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

Ivan Sache, 9 July 2001

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