The Constitution of the Fifth Republic
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The Constitutional Council
© Conseil Constitutionnel
Enacted on 4th October 1958, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic is largely based on the principles set out by General de Gaulle during his famous speech in Bayeux on 16th June 1946: the accountability of the government to the Parliament, made up of two chambers, with a stronger parliamentary system, and the accountability of the president of the Republic to the people.
The establishment of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic
With the return to power of General de Gaulle following the events in Algiers on 13th May 1958, the establishment of the Constitution of 1958 was characterised by its speed, its secrecy and the decisive role played by the government. In fact, after General de Gaulle became President of the Council on 1st June 1958, the Constitutional Law of 3rd June revising the Constitution of 1946 opened up the possibility of drawing up a new constitution only two days later. The first government meeting devoted to this took place on 13th June and was preceded the day before by a meeting of experts led by Michel Debré, the Keeper of the Seals, Minister of Justice, who was in charge of the preparation of the new text. After having been approved in a referendum on 28th September by a large majority of the votes (80%), this text was enacted on 4th October and published in the Journal Officiel (Official Journal of the French Republic) the next day.
The founding text of the Fifth Republic
The Constitution of the Fifth Republic is the fifteenth founding text of France since the French Revolution. The supreme law of the French legal system, it has been modified twenty four times since its publication. It is currently made up of sixteen titles, one hundred and four articles and a preamble that refers to three other fundamental texts: theDéclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) of 26th August 1789, the Préambule de la Constitution (Preamble to the Constitution) of 27th October 1946 (Constitution of the Fourth Republic) and the Charte de l’Environnement (Charter for the Environment) of 2004.
Provisions of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic
Under previous regimes, the authority, which was dependent on the shifting coalitions of parliamentary groups, was unstable. In addition, voters witnessed all kinds of changes they had not been consulted about.
What set the Fifth Republic apart was the new importance given to the president of the Republic. The idea was to give greater stability to the government by strengthening the status and authority of the head of state. With a legitimacy that was distinct from that of the Parliament, the president was indirectly elected in 1958, with direct election by universal suffrage emerging in 1962. Since then it has been the French people themselves who elect a president, just as it is them and only them who assist in the choice of the prime minster by electing a parliamentary majority to support, who then passes the laws presented by the government. However, the system is complex and can vary according to circumstances. As part of the many procedures for rationalising the parliamentary system, the parliamentary majority notably has the power to overthrow the government (article 50), while the president of the Republic has the ability to dissolve it (article 12). In addition, there is the famous article 49-3, which allows the government to pass a bill without the express consent of the National Assembly.
To ensure the proper functioning of the parliamentary system, the Fifth Republic has also been innovative by establishing the Constitutional Council. With the power to impose respect for the Constitution upon everyone, starting with the legislator, the Constitutional Council has become one of the most important institutions of the Fifth Republic:
- With the amendment of the Constitution on 29th October 1974 extending the right of referral to the Constitutional Council to sixty MPs or sixty senators, the use of this parliamentary right by the opposition was decisive, forcing the Constitutional Council to develop a finer jurisprudence.
- With the amendment of 23rd July 2008, an a posteriori review of the law, called the "Question Prioritaire de Constitutionnalité" (preliminary ruling on the issue of constitutionality) was added to the a priori referral.
Amendments to the Constitution
Since its enactment, the Constitution has been the subject of many partial amendments, the most important being that of the Constitutional Law of 6th November 1962, which established the election of the president of the Republic by direct universal suffrage. In 2000, the seven-year term of office was replaced with a five-year term, the idea being to reduce the likelihood of a cohabitation with the concurrence of presidential and legislative elections. Other amendments focused on the adaptation of the Constitution to European construction and the transfer of competences falling under national sovereignty to the European Union. In 2008, a large-scale reform, the “Loi Constitutionnelle de Modernisation des Institutions de la Ve République” (Constitutional Law on the Modernisation of the Institutions of the Fifth Republic), aimed to restore balance to the functioning of the institutions in favour of the Parliament and strengthen the protection of the rights of citizens.