'Political parties and groupings contribute to the expression of universal suffrage. Their formation and activities are freely undertaken. They are required to respect national sovereignty and democracy.' The Fifth Republic, founded in 1958, was the first French regime to include such an explicit reference to the role of political parties in its constitution. Yet its founder, General Charles de Gaulle, was a bitter opponent of the unchecked power of parties, for which he blamed the failures of earlier Republics—governmental instability, policy immobilism and, in 1940, national collapse in the face of the German invasion. His vision was of a France led by a president (himself, in the first instance) who would stand 'above parties' and maintain a direct dialogue, over the heads of politicians, with the voters, via referenda and, from the constitutional reform of 1962, through direct election. The prime minister and government, though requiring a supportive majority (or at least the absence of a hostile one) in parliament, would be chosen by the president in accordance with their competence and the national interest; none would be parliamentarians. Parties, as the expression of partial interests, would certainly have a role in the election of the legislature; but the legislature would henceforth be kept in its due place, balanced by a 'strong arbiter' who would ensure 'national continuity' in the midst of 'political contingencies' (de Gaulle 1946).
De Gaulle's vision of the future proved as naïve as his diagnosis of the past was tendentious. The problem of the Third and Fourth Republics (1870-1940 and 1946-58 respectively) was less the strength of parties than their weakness. Although the historical roots of the broad families of Left and Right in France are deep, indeed etched into the country's electoral geography (Bon and Cheylan 1988), France only developed political parties in the late nineteenth century. Even then they took a minimal form of cadre parties (Duverger 1951): agencies of electoral coordination for groups of local notables with broadly similar views but a deep aversion to such vulgar notions as membership dues or party discipline.