ANALYSIS: Could France be headed for a Sixth Republic?

After three months of pension reform protests in France, there are increasing calls to scrap the Constitution and move to Sixth Republic - but just how possible or likely is this? And what does it even mean? The Local asked a constitutional expert to explain.

ANALYSIS: Could France be headed for a Sixth Republic?
People hold a sign reading 'Out! Liars, quick the sixth Republic' as they take part in the demonstration "Marche pour la VI Republique" (March for the 6th Republic) called by the far-left coalition "La France insoumise" on March 18, 2017 in Paris. (Photo by bertrand GUAY / AFP)

“There are 49.3 reasons to pass onto the sixth republic”, left-wing MP Raquel Garrido said into the camera of French television channel, BFMTV just a few hours after France’s constitutional council approved President Emmanuel Macron’s move to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

Garrido is not the only one to have called for a shift into a “sixth republic” in France in recent weeks, it’s becoming an increasingly common refrain among politicians on the left and protesters on the streets.

To French people like the leader of the far-left France Insoumise party (LFI) Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who campaigned in the 2022 presidential election on the promise moving from a Fifth Republic and into a Sixth, it is not only logical, but also necessary in order to create a political system that better represents the people.

“Often, whenever there is a political or social crisis, we begin hearing more people say that the Fifth Republic is not working properly. People say: we must get out of the Fifth Republic and move into a Sixth”, explained Constitutional Law expert, Maître Thibaud Mulier.

So what do people mean by this?

Put very simply, it means scrapping the current constitution – which has been in place since 1958 – and creating a new one to set out the framework for vital issues for the running of the country, from the process of electing leaders to powers that the president, parliament and the people have.

A new constitution would mean the end of the Fifth Republic and moving into the Sixth.

Although there is no clear consensus among opponents about what a Sixth Republic would actually involve, the over-arching demand is a change from the structure of the Fifth Republic, which places a lot of power in the hands of the president, to a system that gives more power to parliament.

“Most often, these calls come from the Left – recently, it has been La France Insoumise (LFI) and some members of the Green Party. In contrast, the right-wing tends to defend the Fifth Republic”, Mulier told The Local.

Is this possible?

It’s not actually that uncommon if you look back at French history – the country has had five republics, two empires and two (brief) monarchies since the Revolution in 1789.

The longest-lasting regime was the Third Republic – 1870 to 1940 (70 years). If the current Fifth Republic endures until August 2028, it will finally overtake the Third Republic. 

Typically, when regime change has come to France, it has been during a time of political and social turmoil – war, revolution or a coup d’état.

The start of the Fifth Republic was also a tumultuous time – France was still recovering from World War II, its empire was breaking apart amid decolonisation, and in the midst of the Algerian War there was the spectre of a military coup.

Technically, the procedure from moving from one republic to another could happen in two ways, according to Mulier.

“One option would be to use the constitutional model from the Fifth Republic, which it is worth noting, has in itself been changed [by amendments] 24 times.

“In this scenario, it would either be the deputés or the president who proposes the plan. Then, the upper and lower houses of parliament must be agree on the same text.

“If they agree, then we pass to the next step, either a referendum or a vote in parliament.

“The other option, the one that LFI recommends, would be to start from zero and to not use the old apparatus.

“They are calling for an election that would choose representatives to write the new Constitution, which would eventually be put to a vote.

“If that constitution is accepted, then the current constitution would disappear. This could be compared to what has happened in Chile with its constitutional reform.”

What’s so wrong with the Fifth Republic? 

Many people would say nothing – under the current constitution, France has seen a long period of peace and prosperity, including les trentes glorieuse – the years between 1945 and 1975 when the economy boomed and modern France took shape.

But for its detractors, the main problem is the balance of power.

Both the Third Republic (1870-1940) and the Fourth Republic (1946-1958) were parliamentary systems, where the prime minister was the key job (which is why you will be more likely to have heard of the prime ministers – such as Georges Clemenceau and Edouard Daladier – of this period than the presidents). During the Third Republic, France passed many influential laws, such as Secularism (Laïcité) and the freedom of the press.

The downside was instability, particularly in the chaotic post-war period of the Fourth Republic which saw 22 governments in 12 years, with the average life span being just seven months.

In 1958, the leaders of the Fourth Republic called on General Charles de Gaulle – who had led the Free French during World War II – to come out of retirement and help the country as it teetered on the brink of civil war. 

De Gaulle began to craft a new constitution, one that would give the president a seven year term (which would eventually be revised to five years in a subsequent referendum) with significant power – a large influence over foreign policy and national security; the power to dissolve the national assembly, as well as to appoint and dismiss most cabinet officials, including the prime minister. 

“Constitutionally, the president does not technically have the right to govern day-to-day domestic policies in France, but it is the president who chooses the prime minster, meaning, in practice, he does have a lot of power to have his hand in the governing of the country”, explained Mulier.

Those who take issue with the country’s current regime and its constitution see it as giving too much power to the executive, at the expense of parliament and the people.

Most opponents of how the Fifth Republic is structured point to Article like 49.3 of the constitution, sometimes referred to as a “nuclear legislative weapon” – which allows the president and prime minister to unilaterally pass any bill relating to financial or social security issues without consulting parliament”.

It has been used more than 100 times by various presidents since 1958. 

According to Mulier, this exemplifies the key aspect of the Fifth Republic that works: its efficiency.

“The Fifth Republic makes it so that the president has the power and the means to put his/her political agenda into action”, he said.

However, in Mulier’s view, this is also one of its greatest faults.

“The Fifth Republic limited the powers of the parliament, namely during the phase when the law is adopted and in its ability to write and come up with new laws, if those are not in line with the president’s mandate. This has led to a disempowerment of parliament.

“As such, people look to the president to govern – even if a lot of people hate Macron, they still expect him to resolve crises and solve their problems.

“But on the other hand, having a powerful president gives a ‘top down’ feeling where all decisions are made far above. People can start to feel like sheep.

“People want to express themselves, but there is no direct path to do so, save for in the press or on social media”, Mulier said.

Dreams of a Sixième République

Looking at what a Sixth Republic would actually look like is a bit more difficult – since beyond calls for more power for parliament, most people who are calling for one haven’t provided much detail.

According to Mulier, a Sixth Republic likely would not be modelled after the Third or Fourth Republics, even though they allowed for a stronger parliament.

Instead, “calls for a Sixth Republic talk about giving more power directly to the people. How could that materialise? By referendums and new procedures for recalls of elected officials”.

The clearest proposal comes from Mélenchon, who made this part of his (unsuccessful) presidential campaign in 2022.

He said that his idea of the new republic would require that a referendum be required for any Constitutional change or the signing of any new treaty. 

Mélenchon’s Sixth Republic would also bring in a “Citizens’ Initiative Referendum”, which would allow people to gather signatures and propose or repeal laws, to modify the constitution or to even dismiss elected officials. 

Is it likely?

According to Mulier, there is no tangible “reason why a change in Republic could not happen in peacetime.”

However, “in France, systematically and historically, changes to republics and constitutions have come during periods of crisis, or war. We could ask ourselves now if the level of crisis is high enough to require a new constitution, and the answer is debatable.

“Crises help to put a spotlight on what is not working, and if they last for long enough, lawmakers and elites must respond. Institutionally, everything is working currently, and if things stay at the current level, the Fifth Republic could hold on.

“But if the situation becomes more complex, there would need to be some response. Perhaps we don’t pass into the Sixth republic, but there could be the need for a snap election or referendum to be called.”

This is what happened in May 1968, when France was in the midst of serious civil unrest, leading President Charles de Gaulle to secretly flee France for West Germany.

Upon return, De Gaulle dissolved parliament and allowed for new elections.

However, in the view of the French Constitutional expert, putting a new Sixth Republic into action would require a lot of political consensus, and currently, there is no parliamentary majority that is in favour of scrapping the Fifth Republic and its Constitution.

“Looking at the situation right now, we have a parliament and electorate that is primarily made up of the centre, the centre-right, and the far-right – none of whom want to leave the Fifth Republic and would not vote for that”. 

Mulier said that even if a change in Republic were to happen, it would take a lot of time. “Looking at Chile, a modern example of constitutional reform, it took several months to simply come up with a new constitutional document,” he said.

Could France be heading into a Sixth Republic in the future? According to Mulier it is simply “too early to say”, but what is clear, from the Yellow Vests to the pensions protests, that “the people feel they are not listened to and they want to be listened to”.

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French prime minister comfortably survives censure vote

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne avoided parliamentary censure in an early morning vote on Saturday after she forced the government's budget plan through the National Assembly without a vote.

French prime minister comfortably survives censure vote

The motion to censure Borne — the 18th levelled at her since she assumed the office — was brought by the left-wing Nupes alliance after the prime minister activated Article 49.3 to adopt the public finance bill without a vote.

The motion received just 193 of the 289 votes needed to succeed, an unsurprising outcome in light of the lack of support from the centre-right.

Its rejection constitutes the adoption of the 2023-2027 budget programme, which now moves to the Senate, the upper house of the French parliament.

The speaker for Nupes, socialist Philippe Brun, accused the government of “favouring with the greatest servility a very well-endowed minority of the French” despite “an immense inflationary crisis”.

President Emmanuel Macron had “tried to make parliament disappear with his repeated (use of) 49.3”, Brun added.

The far right had supported the left’s motion of censure, accusing Borne of the “repeated and abusive use of 49.3”.

Borne, for her part, hit back at both factions, saying “demagoguery is your only budgetary course”.

The government also resorted to Article 49.3 earlier this year to push through unpopular pension reforms, sparking violent protests.