De Gaulle and the political institutions

General de Gaulle remained profoundly marked after witnessing the collapse of the Third Republic. One of his primordial concerns was the need to provide France with a stable government based around a Head of State himself independent of political parties and invested with emergency powers in situations of national peril. This would not be possible, however, until the nation was liberated and universal suffrage enabled every citizen to express his or her views.

The constituent parliament elected in September 1945 lost little time in disappointing de Gaulle's hopes. It refused to admit any contribution to the constitutional debate from the Provisional Government. Failing to recognise the root causes behind the weakness of the vanished regime, it would merely restore and aggravate its "constitutional faults". This was one of the reasons behind the General's withdrawal from power in January 1946. 

In the course of this same year, Charles de Gaulle repeatedly expressed his views on the constitution, in particular at Bayeux on 18 June. In the spring of 1947, he founded the Rassemblement du Peuple Français, with institutional reform as one of its aims. Nothing came of it, however, and he had to wait until the crisis of May 1958 when he was recalled to the service of the nation by President Coty.

The first act of the government formed on 19 June 1958 was to present a draft constitutional bill establishing an extraordinary procedure for constitutional reform. The draft bill gave the government the power to submit a proposed constitution to direct public referendum. In the course of its debates, the government was obliged to accept the inclusion of principles which the draft bill was designed to implement.

One of these principles was that the government should be accountable to parliament. The parliamentary system was thus maintained but with its faults corrected: in a word, reformed.

How did the constitutional bill promulgated on 4 October 1958 implement the principles laid down in the law of 3 June (I), and how did General de Gaulle, as President of the Republic, put it into application (II)?

I – Provisions of two types were made in the constitution to ensure the stability and capacity for action of a government accountable to the National Assembly. The first were inspired by the Bayeux speech, giving constitutional force to the views of General de Gaulle (A). The others, put forward by ministers of state and the justice minister, the Garde des Sceaux, represented the rules of procedure of the national parliamentary process (B).

A – The Garde des Sceaux, Michel Debré, addressing the Council of State, declared that the President of the Republic would be the "keystone" of the new institutions.

The President of the Republic was no longer elected by Parliament but by a wider electoral college. The government derived from him. He appointed the Prime Minister and, on the Prime Minister's recommendation, the other members of government who could no longer serve simultaneously as members of the National Assembly and the Senate.

The President retained all the prerogatives traditionally reserved for sovereigns and heads of parliamentary states (promulgation of laws, negotiation and ratification of treaties, appointments to public office, etc.), all these prerogatives being exercised subject to ministerial approval and for which the government was accountable to both houses of parliament. The new constitution made no innovations as far as these points were concerned.

In addition, however - and this was a fundamental innovation - the President acted as the arbiter for the proper functioning of the national authorities and ensured the continuity of the state (a. 5).

He was the supreme figure in any crisis who removed all blockages, re-established broken continuity and assumed full responsibility in major national emergencies.

He had the power to dissolve the National Assembly and to submit certain plans or proposals to referendum. In the event of a national crisis interrupting the regular functioning of the national authorities, the President alone took the measures destined to guarantee the constitutional authorities, as rapidly as possible, the means of carrying out their tasks (a. 16).

In such exceptional circumstances, the President would govern alone.

B – The Government, Prime Minister and ministers determined and conducted national policy (a. 20). The Prime Minister directed the action of government. He was responsible for national defence and ensuring the execution of laws passed. The Government was accountable to Parliament (a. 20 and 3.) although, in reality, it was accountable only to the National Assembly.

Although Parliament consisted of the National Assembly and the Senate, the two houses did not have equal rights. One, elected by direct universal suffrage, could be dissolved. The other, elected by indirect suffrage, could not. Any equality between them existed only in constitutional terms; for the adoption of other laws, the Government could ask the National Assembly to exercise its right of final decision.

The most significant innovation lay in the refinement of measures designed to prevent ministerial crises by removing their most common triggers. This is what was termed rationalised parliamentarianism. Its most noteworthy provision concerned the Government's responsibility in the adoption of a law. The law was deemed to have been adopted if no vote of no confidence were carried against it within the period of time laid down in the constitution. This was a rule carried over from the projects of the final days of the Third Republic. There was no longer any need for a majority vote in favour.

II – The actual application of the new constitution was rapidly seen to differ substantially from the official texts. After taking up residence in the Elysée Palace on 9 January 1959, the General continued to determine and decide foreign policy, policy in Algeria and defence policy, exactly as he had done while President of the Council, while also intervening in other areas of government action.  In effect, he was exercising those prerogatives which were supposed to be subject to ministerial approval.

In the autumn of 1962, when the process of decolonisation was completed, the General called a referendum on the proposal for Presidential election by direct universal suffrage. The referendum was, in a way, to be a vote of confidence in his Presidency. A ministerial crisis followed, and the National Assembly was dissolved. The text submitted in the referendum was adopted. In the elections that followed, the parties that campaigned for a "no" vote in the referendum were soundly defeated.

It only remained to present the philosophy of the regime as established in practice by the General. He did this in a press conference on 31 January 1964. He defined with great precision the respective positions and roles of the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister. There was no dual power at the head of the state. In electing their President by universal suffrage, the people granted him full powers. The Prime Minister's job was to deal with everyday issues of government and relations with the houses of parliament, according to the guidelines laid down by the President. 

As the text on the referendum explains, General de Gaulle's constant concern was to retain the trust of the sovereign people, and he repeatedly rendered account to them for his political actions.