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Fifth Republic 1958

Rioting in Algiers by the French population of Algeria on 13 May 1958 led to the fall of the last government of the Fourth Republic, led by Pierre Pflimlin. General de Gaulle was called by President René Coty to lead the government. He initiated the drafting of a new Constitution, which was to lay down the future modus operandi of the French institutions. On 28 September 1958, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic was adopted by referendum. It gave the President of the Republic much broader authority. On 21 December 1958, de Gaulle was elected President by a college of deputies, senators and local elected representatives.

From 1960 onwards, the countries of French Africa gained independence, whilst maintaining special links with France, but the thorniest problem inherited from the Fourth Republic was the continuing war in Algeria. Serious disturbances both in mainland France and in Algeria, and a putsch by generals in Algiers on 22 April 1961, led to an acceleration of the negotiations with the provisional government of the Algerian Republic which culminated in the Evian agreements, overwhelmingly approved by referendum on 8 April 1962. Algeria gained independence and a million French inhabitants had to return to mainland France and a new life. On 28 October 1962, de Gaulle called a referendum which approved election of the head of State by direct universal suffrage. He was elected president on 19 December 1965.

A thriving economy and rehabilitated currency allowed de Gaulle to conduct an energetic foreign policy. His goal was to assert France's independence and its role on the world stage. In support of this policy, he relied on the deterrent capability France had had since acquiring nuclear weapons - on 13 February 1960, France tested its first atomic bomb at the Reggane base in the Sahara. It became the third largest nuclear power, surpassed only by the USA and USSR, both of whose strike capability was, however, far greater. To signal this newly-won independence, de Gaulle decided to withdraw France from NATO's integrated military command, although it remained a member of the Atlantic Alliance.

There were two strands to France's European policy: on the one hand, development of what de Gaulle called "détente, understanding and cooperation" with the Eastern bloc countries in order to end the Cold War and pave the way for a Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals and, on the other, implementation of the Treaty of Rome whilst vigorously defending the sovereignty and fundamental interests of the member States.

Establishment of close cooperation between France and Germany, facilitated by the personal rapport between Chancellor Adenauer and General de Gaulle, made Germany and France one of the "engines" of Europe.

This was also a time of large-scale economic projects: the liner "France" (1962), the supersonic plane "Concorde" (1969), beginning of space exploration (1965), support for technological innovation and the high-tech industries (aerospace, information technology and telecommunications). However, during the 1960s, the profound changes in the French economy and major sociological changes aroused concern and led to new social aspirations. The increasing impact of the media (transistor radios, television) helped take these demands nation-wide and the events of May-June 1968 (strikes and student protests were particularly extensive in France) brought them to a head. Less than a year later, on 28 April 1969, de Gaulle left office permanently following the nation's rejection in a referendum of proposals on regionalisation and reform of the Senate. Georges Pompidou succeeded him as President (election of 15 June 1969). After the latter's premature death, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was elected President on 19 May 1974.

Under Georges Pompidou, a decisive step was taken: France lifted its veto on Britain's entry into the EEC, which was also opened to Ireland and Denmark, taking the number of members to nine in 1973. President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's seven-year term saw radical economic reform with the 30-year postwar boom (the trente glorieuses) ending in the mid-1970s when France entered a prolonged crisis. Nonetheless, there were some major reforms, including lowering the age of majority to 18, legalizing abortion, and ending censorship of films and broadcasting. President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing also initiated meetings of the G7 ("Group of Seven" most industrialized countries) and, together with the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, was instrumental in setting up the European Monetary System (EMS) and the election of Members of the European Parliament by universal suffrage.

In the 1970s, against a background of increasing dissension within the right-wing majority, the left-wing opposition, led by François Mitterrand, succeeded in putting together a strategy to bring it to power, and, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the Left came to power with Mitterrand's election as President of the Republic in 1981. This changeover of political power demonstrated that the 1958 Constitution allows a democratic change of political majority while guaranteeing the stability of the institutions. François Mitterrand was elected for a second seven-year term in 1988. His two terms of office were marked by a series of social measures, the extension and strengthening of decentralization and freedom of expression, abolition of the death penalty, etc. In 1995, Jacques Chirac was elected President of the Republic. In May 2002, he was re-elected for five years.

Irrespective of the changes in the political coalitions and their political differences, there are a number of fundamental constants, regardless of the government's political color, particularly on building Europe, a goal which all the presidents and prime ministers of this period have unwaveringly pursued, mobilising their governments in support of it, and maintaining the competitiveness of French industry in world markets by providing support for sectors in difficulty (such as fishing, iron and steel and textiles) and encouraging the development of new sectors (such as aerospace, telecommunications, biotechnology and environment-related activities).




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