France History – The Crisis of the Fourth Republic

In the second round of the French presidential elections, outgoing president Jacques Chirac gets 82.22% of the votes by beating the Front national candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. Chirac, on which the votes of the left have also concentrated, is the elected president with the highest consensus in the history of the Fifth Republic. In the first round of elections, on April 21, Le Pen’s statement caused a sensation, winning 16.95% of the votes against the 16.12% obtained by the candidate of the Socialist Party Lionel Jospin.

A complete reversal

The presidential and legislative elections held in France in the months of April-May and June 2002 caused a real earthquake which resulted in a complete overthrow of the political scene: the defeat of the government of the left; resignation and retirement to private life of the incumbent Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin; virtual disappearance of the Communist Party; strong rise of the far right; triumphal re-election of Jacques Chirac; finally, a landslide victory for the right-wing coalition, which on 16 June 2002 obtained an absolute majority in the National Assembly.

According to PHARMACYLIB, this violent upheaval began on April 21, 2002, with the breaking out of the far-right vote. The surprise was very strong: why did 5.5 million French people give their preference, on the occasion of the first round of the election of the President of the Republic, to xenophobic, anti-Semitic, racist and ultranationalist far-right parties? The need to understand the reasons and meanings of such a choice has pushed the whole of the French political class to a profound and indispensable self-criticism.

The situation, after five years of government of the plurielle gauche – including socialists of all tendencies, communists, greens, radicals and republicans from Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s Citizens’ Movement – seemed to have somehow come to a standstill. The left no longer aroused any popular enthusiasm and its most important reforms (including the 35-hour work week) were now forgotten, or even criticized. That is why, after the shock of April 21 and the elimination of the left from the second round of the presidential elections, many commentators have ended up saying that if that political earthquake had served to awaken society, to open the eyes of party leaders and relaunching the debate to finally build a fairer and more supportive France, then perhaps it would not have happened in vain. That day a convenient certainty expressed by the political class collapsed: that while everything in the world was changing, nothing would change in the context of French politics. Two old parties – the Gaullist and the Socialist – would have quietly continued to divide power as they had done for thirty years now.

Everyone perceived that these two political forces (as well as the French national football team, world champion in 1998, but old and out of competition in the first qualifying round in the 2002 World Cup without having won a single game or scored a single goal!) Were worn out and seemed to have long since exhausted their historical mission. They gave the impression, each in its own way, of being stranded, with obsolete apparatuses, without an organization and a real program, without compass or identity.

Previous elections had already shown that neither of these two parties knew how to address the millions of French people frightened by the new realities of the post-industrial world born from the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War: the crowd of workers’ disposable ‘, the downgraded of the suburbs, the endemic unemployed, the excluded, the pensioners still in their prime, the young victims of precariat, the modest families threatened by poverty. Many people anguished by the fears and threats of a period in which the usual points of reference seemed definitively lost.

The crisis of the Fourth Republic

Having emerged from the Second World War at the head of a great colonial empire, France found herself having to face at the same time the difficulties of a troubled internal settlement and the pressure of the liberation movement of the colonial peoples of Asia and Africa. The Fourth Republic, which defines the decade 1949-59 in French political history, was characterized from the beginning by two events that would have strongly conditioned its events: the exclusion from the government, and therefore the isolation, of the Communist Party and the rapid decline of the movement founded by Ch. de Gaulle after the liberation. The political struggle, released from the forced postressential solidarity, resumed the forms and methods that had characterized the pre-war phase, as was immediately seen by the limited duration of the governments. From the end of 1947 to June 1954 there were 13 ministries, of which only one lasted more than a year. The parliamentary game resumed an almost irresistible dominance and the formation and dismissal of the executives, in which almost always the same men exchanged places, was often motivated by very subtle distinctions. The precariousness of governments became the precariousness of the regime. The paradox of the Fourth Republic, born thanks to the joint contribution of the Gaullists and the Communists, consisted in having entrusted its survival almost exclusively to men of the Third. While terrorist activity began in Tunisia and the future head of state H. Burghiba made nationalistic claims, in Indochina the fall of Dien Bien-Phu (May 1954) into the hands of the Vietnamese communist forces, led by Ho Chi-Min, it was delivering the first of the ‘serious shocks’ that would end up killing the Fourth Republic. Having risen to government in June 1954, Fr Mendès-France managed to reach an agreement that put an end to the Indochina War and immediately reopened talks with Tunisia for the start of negotiated independence; but it was precisely the policy he followed in North Africa, tending to find a meeting point with the aspirations of Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians, which led to their fall in February 1955. At the same time, the end of the War in Indochina freed forces that would be proved deadly to the system. Veterans and above all career officers brought back to the metropolitan territory the principles and methods of the war fought with the Vietnamese communists; the association of former combatants of Indochina, which previously had a purely welfare task, became from that moment one of the main centers of clandestine conspiracy for the overthrow of the Fourth Republic. Finally, the Algerian question intervened to influence not only French politics but also the future of the country. At the head of a new coalition government, the socialist G. Mollet found himself having to face increasingly hostile demonstrations by the French colonists, who in February 1956 established the first Comité de salut publique in Algiers, with the aim of preserving the Algeria to France even at the cost of overthrowing the regime. At the end of that year, the failure of the Franco-English intervention against Egypt, on the occasion of the Suez crisis, gave new impetus to the Algerian revolt; in the meantime the independence of Morocco and Tunisia and the French factories in India were sold. The ephemeral governments that followed did not take clear positions and the Algerian question became the focal point of French internal politics. The military also took an increasing interest in politics. The malaise, the grudges, the recriminations that had been left in it by the Indochina War, the loss of Tunisia and Morocco, and the unhappy Suez expedition coalesced in a vast conspiracy that culminated in May 1958, when in Algiers a Comité de salut publique, led by the general of the paratroopers J. Massu, placed himself at the head of the French population demanding a more incisive intervention.

While in Paris the National Assembly was voting on a ‘state of emergency’, the danger of a fratricidal war was becoming more and more imminent. In the metropolis, the far-right formations, dissolved by law, organized themselves underground, while the democratic and left-wing ones gave life to the Comité pour la defense de la République. At the same time, daring plans for the invasion of France were being prepared in Algeria and some commandos came to occupy Corsica as a bridgehead to the metropolis. Under these conditions, General de Gaulle appeared to most people to be the only man capable of avoiding civil war, of restoring the authority of the state and of maintaining the republican regime. With the resignation of the government on May 28, President R. Coty, with exceptional procedure, entrusted the powers to de Gaulle.

France History - The Crisis of the Fourth Republic

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