The French historical narrative is marked by various political upheavals, including (but not limited to) a tumultuous and bloody revolution. One of the most significant changes in its political structure is the formation of the five French republics, occurring after the abolition of the monarchy. Each republic, with its own set of characteristics, has shaped the political landscape of France, contributing to its development and progress. Read on for an overview of the five French republics, their key features, and the central events that occurred during their tenure.
The French Revolution
In addition to being the inspiration behind many works of art, the French Revolution ignited a spark that illuminated the entire continent of Europe. Between the bloody revolutions in America and France, other monarchs at the time were terrified.
The Revolution was a long time coming and was initiated by a myriad of social, economic, and political factors. Though initial unrest was attempted to be quelled with the establishment of a National Assembly, it would prove futile. The unrest culminated in the Storming of the Bastille on July 14th – now a national holiday in France known as Bastille Day – by revolutionary insurgents.
The immediate response by the National Assembly, out of fear, was to endow the right to vote upon the French people and abolish feudalism within the country. Civil unrest remained, however, and the decade between 1789 and 1799 was dominated by the revolutionary fervor that came to its zenith with the execution of Louis XVI in 1793.
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What proceeded was a series of republics, consulates, empires, and one aptly named “Reign of Terror” – let’s dive in!
The First French Republic (1792-1804)
The First French Republic began at the onset of the French Revolution. Sowed from the seeds of the American Revolution, which started sixteen years prior, the French Revolution installed liberal-democratic institutions within the French government. On September 21, 1792, the National Convention adopted the first constitution, officially declaring the formation of the First French Republic.
During the Revolution, a young Corsican man by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte was struck by the republican ideals the movement stood for. Corsica was, at the time, under the jurisdiction of France; the Revolution sparked an essence of nationalism among the Corsicans – more linguistically and culturally tied to Tuscan Italians than anywhere else on the European mainland.
A veteran, Napoleon’s brilliant tactical mind resulted in his quick rise through the ranks of the French military. Napoleon soundly expanded French territory despite efforts to quell the Revolution by the First Coalition of European powers. By the end of the Revolution, France was larger than it was when it had started.
The First Republic was marked by political instability, economic crises, and military campaigns. The Reign of Terror, conducted by the radical factions that arose after the Revolution’s outset, claimed the lives of numerous French people, including the monarchy. The bookend of the First Republic came when Napoleon crowned himself the first Emperor of the French: the terminology implied that he ruled for the French people rather than by right of possession of land.
The Second French Republic (1848-1852)
After the fall of Napoleon in 1815, France saw a brief revival of the Bourbon Dynasty on its throne from 1815 to 1830. In 1830, the House of Orléans – cousins of the Bourbons – was installed on the French throne. Thus began the July Monarchy, which lasted until 1848. King Louis Philippe I (r. 1830-1848) was initially a Republican sympathizer but broke ties with the movement when they executed the previous king.
France was not the only European country to experience a revolution in 1848. Known as the February Revolution in France, economic unrest yielded an overthrow of the monarchy yet again and a re-installment of republican values. The new constitution of 1848 established the office of a President and broadened French citizenship by including the right to vote in local elections. This was a new era of democracy.
Despite the various changes in governance, the Second Republic remained short-lived. A nephew of Napoleon, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, managed to get himself elected as the President of France. In 1851, he staged a coup d’état and declared himself the Emperor of France; he reigned as Emperor Napoleon III – he did not take the title of Napoleon II as this was the title of Napoleon’s son, who saw his own brief stint on the throne in 1815. From 1851, Napoleon III established the Second French Empire, which lasted until 1870.
The Third French Republic (1870-1940)
The Franco-Prussian War marked the end of the Second French Empire and the formation of the Third French Republic. The National Assembly enacted a new constitution on the fall of the empire, and this new government was characterized by a bicameral parliament (Chamber of Deputies and a Senate) as well as a president.
The Third Republic oversaw the expansion of many French colonial holdings, including West Africa, French Polynesia, and French Madagascar. The relative stability of the Third Republic yielded the Belle Époque (Beautiful Epoch): a prosperous period of economic growth, flourishing arts, and technological and scientific innovations. The Belle Époque lasted from the 1870s/1880s up until the onset of the First World War in 1914.
The government enacted the Separation of Church and State Act, which eponymously severed ties between government and church. From 1894-1906, France was home to a major political scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish-French artillery officer from Alsace, was wrongfully accused of correspondence and espionage with the German enemy. The scandal became internationally renowned.
Republic came to an end in 1940 when the Vichy Government, under the leadership of Marshal Philippe Pétain, signed an armistice agreement with Nazi Germany, leading to the French collaboration with the Axis powers.
The Fourth French Republic (1946-1958)
With the Allied victory in the Second World War and the subsequent liberation of France, the Fourth French Republic was formed. A new constitution was drawn that strengthened the power of the parliament and reduced the role of the president. In many ways, the Fourth Republic was like the Third Republic – the latter of which is still the most successful political system in French history, aside from the Ancien Régime.
The Fourth Republic was marked by the decolonization of France’s territories, economic growth, and the promulgation of social welfare political institutions. The global economic boom that occurred after the end of the Second World War led to massive growth throughout Europe, thanks in part to the Marshall Plan. French growth, coupled with cooperation with the longtime German enemy, eventually yielded the formation of what would eventually become the European Union.
The Fourth Republic also faced several significant political challenges, such as the Algerian War, labor strikes, and political instability. The Algerian War, a conflict between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front, lasted for eight years, leading to the fall of the government in 1958.
The Fifth French Republic (1958-Present)
The Fifth French Republic was formed following the Algerian War of Independence with a new constitution that granted significant powers to the president, abolished the parliament’s upper chamber, and created a constitutional council. The presidency became the center of power in government, replacing the traditional role of the parliament.
The Fifth Republic is characterized by lasting institutions, political stability, and active participation in international affairs. The implementation of several social and economic reforms, such as the development of the welfare state, equal pay legislation, and the legalization of abortion, are some political landmarks surpassed by the current French Republic.
Despite its progress, the Fifth Republic has faced various political, social, and economic challenges. The Gilets Jaunes protests, which began in 2018 to demand social and economic reforms, underscored the Republic’s current challenges. Nevertheless, the Fifth Republic, marked by its strong institutions, continued democratic practices, and consistent international engagement, remains a prominent world power.