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  • The Western Allies 50 Years LaterFrance-Consensus Without Vision
  • Philippe Bénéton (bio)

There was a time when, to borrow a phrase from Charles Maurras, “the French did not like one another.” The reason they did not get along was that earthquake known as the French Revolution, which opened up profound political fault lines. That era is over now, but its definitive close came only recently: the French “civil war” ended in the 1980s when President François Mitterrand and his Socialists, having come to power, acceded to the pressure of circumstances and broke with the Jacobin revolutionary tradition. From then on it became possible to say, with François Furet, that “the French Revolution has ended.” The French political situation of today, therefore, stands in sharp contrast to that of the past. The French people now agree among themselves on their form of government, on the status of the Catholic Church, on the economic system, and on the need to respect basic rights.

The 1995 presidential election campaign clearly illustrated this new consensus. On 7 May 1995, conservative Jacques Chirac defeated Socialist Lionel Jospin in the runoff by a margin of 52.6 to 47.4 percent, bringing to an end François Mitterrand’s 14-year reign as president. Yet the major candidates barely differed over essentials, arguing instead about modes and methods. The only thing that was truly at stake, and the only subject of potential discord, had to do not with the inner life of the country, but with France’s place in the new Europe that is now under construction.

Yet if the French are less divided than before, it does not follow that they are more united. They no longer detest one another—at least not on political grounds—but they are drifting apart, tending toward an [End Page 31] individualistic withdrawal into the self that is loosening political ties and weakening the sense of citizenship. Politics used to be overvalued in France; today, it tends to be devalued. What is it, indeed, that the French agree about? Certainly they agree about the rules of the game more than about anything of substance. Liberal democracy has triumphed in the form of a stable and established regime, but this very same liberal democracy is being progressively reduced to a matter of procedures. What constitutes national identity has come into question, as it has wherever the procedural version of liberal democracy has achieved predominance.

The Fifth Republic therefore marks a turning point—the end of French exceptionalism. This great change has three aspects: 1) the solution of the institutional problem; 2) the obliteration of the Jacobin tradition; and 3) the advent of liberal democracy by default.

The Solution of the Institutional Problem

Political and constitutional instability is the most distinctive and readily apparent feature of French postrevolutionary history. Since 1789, France has known three monarchies, two empires, and five republics, and has tried out more than a dozen constitutions. Most of these regimes collapsed without great resistance. Until the Fifth Republic took root, French political history (the Third Republic is a partial exception) featured a succession of weak regimes ridden with domestic conflict. During an initial period that lasted throughout the nineteenth century, disputes concerning legitimacy were at the fore, pitting against one another legitimist monarchists, Orléanist monarchists, Bonapartists, and republicans. Subsequently, the republicans gained the upper hand, and under the Third Republic (1875–1940) the republican tradition became ever more firmly entrenched.

Yet if quarrels over legitimacy lost their force after the First World War, political divisions remained strong and the question of institutions remained in dispute. The triumphant Republic was embodied in a particular form of regime, which Roger Priouret calls the “Republic of the Deputies.” The Third and Fourth republics were parliamentary regimes, but not in anything resembling the English sense. Who were, first and foremost, the lords of those two republics? The deputies. They thought of themselves as such, and they made a point of seeing to it that the government did not forget it. The crucial venue of political activity was the National Assembly, which was a collection of sovereign deputies. Parties were numerous and poorly disciplined, coalitions...

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