10 Colum. J. Eur. L. 157 (2003)

Martin A. Rogoff, Professor of Law, University of Maine School of Law

Since its inception in 1958, the legal and political accomplishments of the Fifth Republic have been substantial. The deep social and political cleavages of the Revolution of 1789 that plagued French political life throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, have finally been replaced by a more cohesive body politic and less confrontational politics. Since 1981, leftist governments have alternated in power with rightist governments. During much of that time, a President of one political persuasion has shared power with a Prime Minister of the other. The growth of shared values across the political spectrum has led to increasing acceptance of the Conseil constitutionnel, an institution which has evolved into an interpreter, articulator, reconciler, and enforcer of the values embodied in the fundamental documents of French public law: the Constitution of 1958, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1791, and the Preamble to the Constitution of 1946. French political life has been functioning within the context of the Constitution of 1958 for 45 years. It greatly exceeds the longevity of all other French regimes (except for the embattled Third Republic, which lasted about 70 years).

In spite of these notable achievements, there are some who find the Fifth Republic so deficient as to require its replacement by new political institutions and processes: thus the call for a Sixth Republic. Critics of the Fifth Republic find fault with a number of specific aspects relating to the structure and operation of the institutions of the Republic as well as with contemporary political culture. However, the primary impetus behind the calls for a Sixth Republic is the surprising showing of the extreme-right Front National party in the presidential elections of spring 2002. In the first round of balloting for President, incumbent Jacques Chirac received 19.88% of the votes cast, ultra-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen received 16.86%, and leftist Lionel Jospin received 16.18%. The rest of the votes (47.08%) were divided among 13 minor candidates. Turnout in the first round was light by French standards: only 72% of eligible voters cast ballots, compared with 78% in 1995, 81% in 1988 and 1981, and 84% in 1974. Since only the two highest vote-getters in the first round advanced to the second round of balloting, the principal candidate of the left, Lionel Jospin, was eliminated, and the candidate of the extreme right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, found himself one step away from the presidency.

Since most French voters found an extreme right President unacceptable, it was clear that President Chirac would be re-elected. Although polls taken before the first round of voting indicated that a Chirac-Jospin run-off would be extremely close and that the French left did in fact have considerable support, most French leftists felt compelled to vote for the rightist Chirac. As a result, Chirac was elected with 82.21% of the votes cast; Jean-Marie Le Pen received 17.79%. Under the circumstances, however, Chirac was unable to claim a clear mandate to govern; a substantial, but indeterminate, number of voters had voted “against” Le Pen rather than “for” Chirac.

While an objective observer might regard the French presidential elections of 2002 as predictable, and in most respects unremarkable, the average French person, and many intellectuals and opinion leaders saw the situation quite differently. The results of the first round of voting, in fact, sent shock waves through the French body politic. Olivier Duhamel, for example, regarded the French elections as indicating that French democracy was on the road to a “charismatic, xenophobic populism,” like that presently developing in the Netherlands (List Pym Fortuyn), Austria (Jörg Haider and his FPÖ), Switzerland (Christophe Blocher and the UDC), and Italy (Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia). A  populist democracy, according to Duhamel, is based on consensus and on the confusion of right and left. Populist political candidates do not propose specific programmatic initiatives giving voters clear choices among practical alternatives, but rather seek votes by appealing to concerns for personal security and to vague ethnic or racist ideologies. Opposition mainstream political parties, Duhamel maintains, fail by not presenting constructive, well-developed, reasonable, and practical alternatives to those opposed to the policies of the present government. It is this de facto consensus of mainstream parties which allows populist politicians to claim the opposition mantle.

The two essays under review in this article are representative of a rather substantial pamphlet-type literature calling for a fundamental reordering of French political life. For those of this persuasion, piecemeal reform of existing institutions is not sufficient; what is needed is a thoroughgoing reformation. While these critics certainly represent a minority view in France today, they raise important questions about the practice of democratic politics in the modern age, not only in France, but also in other countries where democratic government is the supreme political value. These two essays present somewhat different, but complementary, perspectives on the present situation. Paul Allies focuses almost exclusively on governmental institutions, while Olivier Duhamel looks primarily at the broader political culture of contemporary France.