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 has become 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 of 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 favours the 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 all that rare 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”. 

It 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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Anti-Semitism fears stalk Jewish voters’ choice in France

Left-leaning Jewish associations and individual voters in France are struggling to make a choice ahead of snap parliamentary polls, with the far right expected to make massive gains and the hard left mired in allegations of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism fears stalk Jewish voters' choice in France

For Jewish collective Golem, “the far right is the main danger threatening Jews and French society,” its spokesman Lorenzo Leschi told AFP.

But “there is obviously a big anti-Semitism problem at La France Insoumise” (LFI), the hard-left outfit whose ambivalent response to Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel left it temporarily shunned by other left parties, he added.

Three major blocs are competing for votes in the two-round ballot on June 30th and July 7th: the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) of Marine Le Pen, President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist camp, and the left Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP) alliance, of which LFI is the largest member.

It was “a total disgrace” for France’s traditional left party of government, the much-weakened Parti Socialiste (PS), to ally with LFI, which “makes hatred of Jews its electoral stock in trade,” the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (Crif) charged.

Raphaël Glucksmann, who led the PS to an unexpectedly strong result at June 9th European elections, acknowledged to an anguished voter on a phone-in show last week that the alliance places “a very difficult choice before you” – while insisting the far-right “threat” was “infinitely too great” to renounce working with LFI.

LFI itself has always strenuously denied allegations of anti-Semitism, and the left alliance programme includes a condemnation of Hamas’s attacks and a plan to tackle Islamophobia and hatred of Jews.

The hard left’s campaign for June 9th European elections laid massive emphasis on stopping Israel’s campaign in Gaza, while its leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon claimed that France today suffered only “vestigial” anti-Semitism.

Such sorties angered many Jewish people in the face of a 300-percent year-on-year surge in anti-Semitic incidents in January-March in the wake of October 7th attack and Israel’s reprisal in Gaza.

This week, two teenagers from a Paris suburb were charged with the rape and abuse of a 12-year-old Jewish girl, acts apparently motivated by anti-Semitism.

Mélenchon – a leading candidate for prime minister should the left score a majority – posted on social media that he was “horrified” by the hate crime.

But the attack offered an opening for three-time presidential candidate Le Pen to blast “stigmatisation of Jews” by “the far left”.

Le Pen’s party was co-founded by a former member of the Nazi paramilitary Waffen-SS and long led by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who made repeated anti-Semitic remarks in public and is a convicted Holocaust denier.

Since she took over, sidelining her father and renaming the outfit, she has attempted to win over potential Jewish voters, including with vocal support for Israel.

Historian Serge Klarsfeld, who has spent decades researching the Holocaust in German-occupied France, stunned the community on Saturday by saying he would vote for the RN over the left alliance if forced to choose in the July 7th run-off.

“My life rotates around defending Jewish memory, defending persecuted Jews, defending Israel,” Klarsfeld said.

“I’m faced with a far left that’s in the grip of LFI, which reeks of anti-Semitism and violent anti-Zionism,” he added – traits Klarsfeld believes the RN has “shed”.

“Serge Klarsfeld is… worsening confusion and outdoing everyone in erasing history, which is part of the RN’s ideological programme,” philosopher Michele Cohen-Halimi, writer Francis Cohen and actor Leopold von Verschuer wrote in a joint op-ed in daily Le Monde on Thursday.

The RN itself and its rightwing allies withdrew support for two candidates on Wednesday who had made anti-Semitic posts on social networks.

The election is ‘totally weird’ said comedian and activist against anti-Semitism Emmanuel Revah told AFP.

He is leaning towards voting for LFI because “the most important thing is beating the RN”.

“It’s very difficult, I’m rationalising by telling myself I’d rather vote for a candidate or a party that’s just a little rather than completely anti-Semitic,” he added.

“We don’t have the choice, we’re voting for any candidate against the RN,” said Brigitte Stora, author of the book “Anti-Semitism: an intimate murder”.

Once the parliamentary polls are over, though, “we have to take Mélenchon and his little lieutenants out of the game,” she added.