France is generally regarded as the birthplace of democracy in Europe. Although the 1789 French Revolution is considered by many as the spark that lit the fire of European democratization and the propagation of fundamental concepts such as equality or human rights across the continent, the French Republic itself has had a very turbulent history of trying to maintain its core democratic values and power over the centuries. When I use the general term “French Republic”, I’m referring to a period in France’s history when it was more or less governed democratically by representatives of the people without any interference from a king, an emperor or an autocrat. In fact, since the declaration of the “First Republic” in 1792, the French government has actually functioned under five different republics, each governed by different constitutions, with the current republic conveniently known as the “Cinquième République” (Fifth Republic) whose constitution was actually only recently approved in 1958!
Between these different republics were various periods of crisis and social upheaval, including World War II, two Napoléon emperorships, the restoration of the French Monarchy, the 60s culture wars and general infighting between different political factions who only wanted their strict vision of democracy applied. In fact, given France’s history, I fully expect to live through the foundation of the Sixth Republic sometime in my lifetime!
Unlike France, the United States still adheres to its original 1789 constitution1 with only a mere twenty-seven amendments added to the text. And the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, don’t count because they were approved at the same time as the original constitution. Of the remaining seventeen amendments, two amendments (18th and 21st) concerning prohibition of alcohol cancel each other out, so in reality the US constitution has only been modified just fifteen times since it’s original inception! Other than these fifteen additional amendments, NOTHING has been changed - not one old English phrase has been modified and not one strange looking letter ”S” rewritten!
In fact, simply to propose an amendment to the US constitution requires either 2/3 of both houses of Congress or 2/3 of states legislatures to launch the ratification process. Then the amendment must be approved by 3/4 of the US states’ legislatures (or a state’s ratifying constitutional convention)! This is the reason I tell my French friends why it is so difficult to reform anything that is hard coded into the US constitution, such as changing the US presidential election process (which was designed to allow time for delegates to a special “electoral college” to arrive on horseback to designate a president) or to pass any sort of gun control laws (the 2nd amendment explicitly allows the “right to bear arms”). For my European friends, remember that the US constitution is almost considered a sacred document by most Americans, so even simply the thought of modifying it brings shivers down people’s backs.
The French, however, have no such scruples about changing their constitution. Changing the constitution only requires 3/5 approval of the current legislature which gives the impression that it is constantly being tinkered with, whether it is to allow France to conform to the latest European Union directive or simply to promote the President’s current program. In the beginning I found this nonchalant approach to constitutional modifications surprising, but after a while it all turns into background noise until one day soon when the Sixth Republic will be secretly declared…
The history of France’s five periods of republican rule (by the people) is very interesting reading.
The First Republic (1792-1804) - The ”First Republic” was declared in 1792 during the turbulent time of the French Revolution and was meant to be a complete rupture with every religious or monarchist convention of the past. And there’s no better way to force people to obey a new republican constitution than to temporary suspend it, terrify the population into mutual betrayal and then send any suspected traitors to the guillotine2!! After events calmed down a bit, in 1793 a second constitution was adopted called “La Constitution de l’An I” (The Constitution of Year 1) which established a republican government and also had the unique idea to reorganize the calendar into 12 months3 of 10 day weeks4, and dividing each day into 10 hours, each hour into 100 decimal minutes and each minute into 100 decimal seconds!
In 1795, yet another constitution came into effect, “La Constitution de L’An III” (The Constitution of Year 3), reorganizing the government into two creatively-named legislative bodies called the “Coucil of Elders” (upper chamber) and the “Council of 500″ (lower chamber with, amazingly, 500 representatives). These bodies were managed by a five person executive committee called the “Directoire”, which, after an internal coup d’état, later became a group of three “Consuls” (The Constitution of Year 8) and finally only ”First Consul for Life” Napoléon Bonaparte (The Constitution of Year 10), who became Emperor two years later! With five different constitutions in twelve years, it’s no wonder people so easily accepted Napoléon as their Emperor, if only to simplify government! Incidentally, Napoléon also abolished the new calendar in 1805…probably because he was so sick of trying to remember the bizarre names of all the months!
French Revolutionary Calendar Months (starting with the first month of autumn): Vendémiaire (vintage), Brumaire (mist), Frimaire (frost), Nivôse (snow), Pluviôse (rain), Ventôse (wind), Germinal (seed), Floréal (blossom), Prairial (meadow), Messidor (harvest), Thermidor (heat), Fructidor (fruits)
Inter Repubic Period…
The Second Republic (1848-1852) - As you can see by the dates, this constitution didn’t last long. Maybe the founders should have reconsidered when they designed direct presidential elections resulting in Napoleon’s nephew, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, as president. What a surprise when he declared himself Emperor (Napoléon III) during the coup d’état of 1852! Won’t they ever learn?
Emperorship of Louis-Napoléon (1852 - 1870)
The Third Republic (1870-1940) - Currently the longest lasting French constitution, la Troisième Republique (The Third Republic) is considered by many as one of the most stable periods of French republican government. In a sort of irony, the constitution of the Third Republic was actually just a temporary measure designed to limit executive power (remember all of the recent coup d’états?) before a better one could be agreed on. However, the temporary solution was actually fairly well balanced and ended up lasting 70 years! The constitutional power was heavily weighted towards the legislature resulting in a very weak, figurehead president of the Third Republic who was also frequently the butt of many jokes!
Invasion and Occupation of France by Nazi Germany (1940-1945) - déjà vu?
The Fourth Republic (1946-1958) - Although executive power was slightly increased, the motto of the Fourth Republic was that government only requires one big happy assembly and there would always be a majority consensus to manage the country. Unfortunately, if you combine the Algerian War (France’s Vietnam) with the 60s culture crisis and the rise of communism, you have a good recipe for complete governmental gridlock… Time to make a new constitution!
The Fifth Republic (1958 - present)- The distinguishing feature of this constitution is the French rediscovery and reinforcement of executive power which the Third and Fourth Republics lacked. The new presidential powers were meant to arbitrate during periods of crisis, command the armed forces and foreign policy, and basically to maintain the integrity and unity of the French Republic. Although the French President has the right to dissolve the current national assembly and call elections, it is actually the prime minister (head of the elected assembly) who is in charge of government legislation. In fact, in the history of the Fifth Republic there have been two periods of “co-habitation” where the President and the Prime Minister were from opposing parties! This makes for great early evening TV with both men competing against each other for power, prestige and sound-bites (especially in high profile events on the world stage).
So despite being such an ancient power, the French still haven’t had the same constitution for more than 70 years while the US is still running strongly after 220 years! Which approach is better? Did France really have a choice after so many coup d’états, emperors and foreign invasions? Could it possibly be a better design to allow a consitution conceived before electricy, cars or the telephone to be more easily changed? Or is it better to not touch a document that has worked relatively well as a basis of government for over 2 centuries? I guess we’ll see generations from now when the US is still debating whether it’s a constitutional right to machine gun a deer and France has entered it’s Tenth Republic (for better or for worse!). Until then, Vive La République!
Wouldn’t it be cool to say you were born on “10 Nivôse CLXXX”? Click here to convert any normal date into revolutionary French format!
France isn’t the only place with a constitution. The European Union is trying desperately to ratify its own supra-national constitution (currently disguised under the name “The Treaty of Lisbon” after the original one was rejected in 2004 by French and Dutch referendums). In a sort of irony, just the preamble of the proposed European constitution is almost the same length of the entire US constitution!
So how many constitutions has France invoked since guillotining their king? Quite a lot to say the least!! Here is a definitive list of ALL the French constitutions, including the not so democratic ones…(Napoléon actually reigned under a constitution)
Here is a list of all of the modifications to the constitution of the current French Fifth Republic since its inception in 1958. With 24 modifications, it’s almost the equivalent of a constitutional change every other year!
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- the country did briefly function under the 1781 “Articles of Confederation” until the final federal constitution was approved [↩]
- this period of the French Revolution was known as “La Terreur” (The Reign of Terror) [↩]
- every 3 months corresponded to a season [↩]
- The 10th day replaced Sunday as the “day of rest” [↩]