The Government of France

By E. Drexel Godfrey | Go to book overview
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French life that makes any description or analysis of the office he holds highly tentative. No other Frenchman is likely to bring to the presidency the national prestige of de Gaulle, nor is any other Frenchman likely to be comfortable with the vast array of powers developed by the general. Successors will find it difficult to resist the impulse either to scale down informally the powers of the presidency or to use them in such a completely different fashion as to distort the present nature of the office.

As de Gaulle is a unique figure in the presidency, so Michel Debré is in the premiership. The first occupant of this office largely devised his own powers and those of all the other elements of government. Debré has, in other words, a strong personal stake in the success in its original form of the machinery he designed. No successor is likely to feel himself as inhibited as Debré has been in elaborating ways and means of making the government's rather cumbersome machinery more flexible.

Presidents and premiers were also features of the Third and Fourth Republics. It is the difference between the old concept of the presidency and the new version which makes the constitution of the Fifth Republic distinctive. The monarchical majority of the original Assembly of the Third Republic, unable to agree on an occupant for the throne, compromised on a president as the repository of national sovereignty, with the expectation that the office would soon be abolished when a proper king became available. It was only natural under these circumstances that the first elected occupant of the presidency was a somewhat regal figure in his own right, a representative of traditional political conservatism who was himself a confirmed monarchist. This was Marshal MacMahon, a professional soldier who had taken part in the brutal crushing of the revolutionary Paris Commune in 1871. MacMahon's name is important to French constitutional history because of his clumsy attempts to expand the original president's functions by dissolving the Assembly and calling for new elections which, he hoped, would produce a more satisfactorily conservative majority. Both he and the precedent he sought to establish were destroyed. The republicans rose angrily against what they considered a usurpation of power, drove MacMahon from the presidency, and thereafter followed the example made explicit a generation later by Georges Clemenceau, who was to become the leader of France during World War I. When asked which presidential candidate he supported, "The Tiger" replied: "I vote always for the most stupid." From the fall of MacMahon in 1879 until the fall of the Third Republic in 1940 no president

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