De Gaulle and Presidential election by universal suffrage

“One of the essential characteristics of the Fifth Republic is that it provides the state with a head […]. If the President is to bear such a burden and carry out his task effectively, however, he will require the explicit confidence of the nation.

Charles de Gaulle, in an address of 20 September 1962.

In the initial version of the 1958 Constitution, the President of the Republic was elected not by direct universal suffrage but by an electoral college (consisting of members of parliament, members of general councils, members of the assemblies of overseas territories and elected local councillors). His legitimacy derived therefore not directly from the people, the holders of national sovereignty, but from the party system to which he risked owing allegiance. The historic aura of the man of 18 June protected him from any such dependence but his successors might not enjoy such freedom of action. They might be unsuccessful in remaining above the partisan manoeuvres that had caused the chronic ministerial instability of the two previous regimes.

Anxious to "provide the state with a head" and driven by events, in 1962 the General called a referendum on a proposal for constitutional reform that would put an end to such institutional weaknesses: electors were asked to vote yes or no to the election of the President by direct universal suffrage.

The aim of the new form of presidential election was to ensure the Head of State enduring popular legitimacy, the "explicit confidence of the nation", and to guarantee his independence of political party. This proposal for direct presidential elections, an integral part of the general's institutional philosophy, was also the outcome of specific circumstances: the assassination attempt at Petit-Clamart, from which he escaped by a miracle, strengthened his determination to ensure the continuity of the Fifth Republic by  consolidating the legitimacy of the President. In addition, the end of the Algerian crisis had reawakened dormant political ambitions, and the spectre of the "party regime" once again haunted the Republic. This was the background to the proposal which the whole of France would be asked to vote upon in the referendum.

The proposal sparked one of the fiercest political battles in the history of the Fifth Republic. Legal battle was joined over the constitutional justification for the application of article 11. General de Gaulle's speech of 20 September 1962 created a storm of criticism from the political classes and the legal profession. Gaston Monnerville, President of the Senate, accused the President of "illegality". The Council of State considered the proposal unconstitutional. De Gaulle took his case to the French people, identifying himself with the referendum. The National Assembly, for the most part hostile to the reform, passed a motion of no confidence by 280 votes out of 480 and the Pompidou government fell. On 28 October, however, the electors voted 62% in favour of the reform to the constitution. As democratic legitimacy won out over legal dispute, the Constitutional Council, to which the President of the Senate had referred the matter, declared itself incompetent to assess the constitutional status of a law adopted by referendum. The general election gave the Gaullists 40.5% of the vote. Charles de Gaulle's sweeping victory in the Presidential election of 1965 only confirmed this popular approval.

The future of the Fifth Republic was now assured. The regime carried the stamp of popular legitimacy. France was now provided with stable institutions to which even the most determined opponents would gradually give their allegiance.