Vive la révolution! But is France ready to establish a Sixth Republic?

As the 65th anniversary of the Fifth Republic of France approaches, it can be said that one of the most contested moments in its history was the elevation of the nation’s president to a status almost equivalent to that of an elected monarch.

“In a nationwide protest, millions of demonstrators have taken to the streets, sometimes in a violent manner, with one of their chants being “Down with the Fifth Republic!” The decision by Emmanuel Macron to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 has sparked a protest that has become far more intense and widespread.”

In Europe, critics argue that the constitution of France’s Fifth Republic uniquely places control of the executive and legislature in the hands of one man, essentially making him a supreme leader. However, it is worth noting that this position has always been held by a man so far.

The French president appoints the government’s ministers and serves as the chief of the armed forces. He also has the power to temporarily veto laws that are determined by certain members of the Constitutional Council, or promulgates new laws. Additionally, he has the authority to dissolve Parliament.

In principle, the prime minister, who can command a parliamentary majority and appoints the president, understandably, rarely finds the president’s wishes to be an obstacle to their views. However, it is the president who primarily coordinates with the prime minister in this matter.

The constitution, drafted by Michel Debré, a professor of law who turned into a resistance fighter and devised by De Gaulle, contains tools that would allow the government to radically restrict parliamentary debate and ram legislation through the Nationale Assemblée without a vote.

Since 1958, particularly article 49.3, which permits the executive to circumvent parliament in case of uncertainty regarding securing a majority, has been utilized on 100 occasions. Previous presidents have frequently employed them, often in return for a parliamentary vote expressing lack of confidence in the government.

Many commentators are calling it a crisis of French democracy, as the current president has been widely accused of being autocratic and arrogant. It is already evident that many voters, more than 70% of them, oppose Macron’s reforms, which has ensured that all the tools to pass the reform are being used.

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The overthrow of the statue of Napoleon I during the civil war between the Third Republic and the Paris Commune, following the Franco-Prussian war. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Amid a fractured and unstable political landscape, the power of France’s presidents is only aggravating and deepening divisions, as the far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his party, La France Insoumise (Unbowed France), say that the centralised and solitary power of the Fifth Republic’s government is popularly mistrusted, leading to an ever more hysterical debate among detractors.

They suggest that the Fifth Republic has come to an end.

According to author Patrick Martin-Genier in his book titled “Towards a Sixth Republic,” it is argued that Germany cannot be properly called a parliamentary democracy with comparable means to France. He states that the significant issue is that elements of authoritarianism have been acknowledged since the inception of the Fifth Republic.

“The system of parliamentary democracy basically confiscates the power of the vertical system, allowing the president to do what he wants. As time goes on, it becomes more apparent that we cannot continue like this, and it is less acceptable.”

According to Raphaël Porteilla, a political scholar at the University of Burgundy, “the Fifth Republic’s ‘hyperpresidency’ is brought about by factors such as distance, seclusion, a centralization of authority, solitary or limited decision-making, a lack of openness, and ultimately, if faced with resistance, authoritarianism.” This viewpoint is supported by others as well.

Many people have expressed alarm at what might happen if Marine Le Pen, a far-right leader, takes full advantage of the presidential republic system and becomes an authoritarian. However, France is still four years away from its next scheduled presidential election, where Macron’s popularity could potentially plummet.

Porteilla emphasizes that the current constitution intentionally restricts the role of parliament as a check and balance, not only through article 49.3, but also through provisions that allow the executive to control the time for debate and force a vote on a bill, keeping only the amendments it has approved. This effectively marginalizes the people, who can exercise their supposed sovereignty solely during periodic elections and have no other constitutional means to take action. Referendums can only be initiated by the president or by 20% of MPs supported by 10% of voters – approximately 4.8 million individuals – as long as parliament has not already examined the issue.

According to him, during the second round of the parliamentary election that year, only 46% of voters took the effort to vote, whereas the turnout for the 2022 presidential election run-off, which resulted in Macron being reelected to the Elysée, was the lowest since 1969. He states that the public is limited to the role of an observer and, increasingly, as non-participants in voting.

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Faced with a democratic crisis that calls into question the legitimacy of the current regime, he argues that the issue is whether or not France should change its constitution, but altogether, constitutions should change.

So, France has experienced multiple occasions since 1789 where it was forced to undergo fundamental changes in a chaotic uprising of popular yellow vests gilets, following another bout of political and social turmoil. Therefore, there are good reasons why it is governed in a way that is not to be questioned.

What was needed above all was efficiency in legislation and stability, as the Fifth Republic was born amid a military coup attempt in Algeria in May 1958. The previous Fourth Republic, founded in 1946, had seen the rise and fall of a dozen governments, with an average duration of seven months.

Having concluded that full parliamentary democracy and France were not natural bedfellows, De Gaulle, the wartime hero and country’s “homme de providence,” reinforced his executive regime by ensuring a directly elected president through a referendum to be held four years later.

In the 21st century, it is no longer seen as democratic, but it may be constitutional to use powers without a parliamentary majority. Macron is trying to reform the country against its will, which is believed to be the core issue. Instead of being torn up, the constitution should be changed again, according to many who feel that the president, as envisioned, largely remains above the actual running of the country.

Adopting and writing a new constitution would be a perilous undertaking, especially during a time of political uncertainty, according to Professor David Bellamy, a history professor. He argues that such a task would come with a high cost of efficient decision-making, as compromise and consensus, which are not inherent in France’s political culture, would need to be embraced. This, in turn, would require placing the heart of lawmaking in parliament once again.

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“The Fifth Republic has shown its adaptability through France’s experience with referendums, both successful and unsuccessful, involving large majorities and small ones, as well as different presidents and parliaments with power-sharing arrangements. Additionally, the Republic has witnessed instances of presidents leaving office due to death or resignation, as well as civil unrest, wars, and decolonization. Bellamy further emphasizes this point.”

2 May: The window of a headlice removal clinic is daubed with graffiti that says “Macron, we are making an appointment for you”. Photograph: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

According to historian Lazar Marc, the French are quite attached to the idea of a leader-style Bonaparte who holds all the power. Many would argue that revising the contentious articles and making a few changes here and there, such as implementing proportional representation, would suffice to transition towards a more participatory democracy. France, in its modern form, has achieved prosperity and peace.

Lazar expressed, “There is something about the French monarchy being republican.” We are still wondering why it appeals to so many of us, especially during presidential elections with such high numbers. Last year’s turnout may have been low, but it was still 72%.”

Historically, France has changed its constitution only in times of war, revolution, and existential crisis, which are, at least, demonstrations of mass in this year.

Is there any agreement on what a Sixth Republic might look like? Does the system resemble a US-style with balanced powers between the legislature and the executive? Does it follow a European-style regime with a largely representational head of state? Would people be given power through routine referendums, similar to Mélenchon?

In the current fractured state of French politics, it is highly unlikely that the Sixth Republic will be imminent. Despite the frequent calls for change in France, the majority of MPs do not agree on what actual changes the country needs, making it difficult for a stronger parliament to emerge.

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