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Fourth Republic 1946-1958

The Fourth Republic of France existed from 1946-1958 under the fourth republican constitution. It was characterized by a weak and decentralized government. The French Committee of National Liberation, headed by General de Gaulle, was always eager to emphasize its continuity with the Third Republic. This position, if accepted both at home and abroad, not only enabled it more easily to challenge Vichy's claim to be the legitimate government of France, but also facilitated its uphill fight to gain the confidence of and, later, recognition by the Allied powers. Yet no matter how much it stressed the fiction of a continuous republic legality, a promise to re-establish the constitutional framework of the Third Republic would have proven impolitic " because of popular feelings created by the fall of France. The majority of the active Resistance forces in metropolitan France, as well as all those groups that had fled the country and joined the cause of de Gaulle, had come to attribute a great part of the responsibility for the 1940 defeat to the institutional set-up and the personnel of the Third Republic. It became necessary, therefore, to take some further positive action.

Up to its return to metropolitan France, the Provisional Government, as the National Committee then called itself,2 maintained the right of the French nation to choose freely its personnel and government. In his speech before the National Council of Resistance of September 12, 1944, General de Gaulle as head of the Provisional Government reaffirmed this position and the promise contained in the Ordinance of April 21, 1944 underlining the interim character of his administration. He announced that, in the intermediate period until the elections could take place, the French Government would issue decisions but not legislate. The Provisional Government formally affirmed the unbroken existence of the republican form of government. While denying in theory any validity to Vichy legislation, for practical reasons it issued detailed instructions as to which of the Vichy laws were to be considered retroactively invalid, which were to be considered invalid from the date of issuance of this decree, and which for the sake of convenience should be applied until further notice.

An ordinance of the Committee of National Liberation of April 21, 1944 had ruled that anyone who had voted full powers for Petain was disqualified henceforth from membership in elective assemblies. Opposition to this en bloc exclusion was strong, mainly in the ranks of the Center and Right Wing political groups, who, as a consequence of this decree, could not muster even enough acceptable candidates in November, 1944 to fill their increased quota for the Consultative Assembly. As a result of pressure by the well-organized parliamentarians who enjoyed the strong support of the former President of the Senate, Jeanneney, at that time Minister in the de Gaulle Administration, the original decree was modified on April 4, 1945. A jury d'honneur was set up under the presidency of the Vice President of the Council of State and authorized to examine the status of members of elective assemblies and to restore eligibility to those who had subsequently "redeemed themselves through participation in Resistance activities." Much to the disgust of the extreme Left, a number of Center and Right Wing politicians passed this test successfully and were thus enabled to run again for office as early as the October, 1945, elections. This alleviated to some degree the shortage of experienced parliamentary personnel in the middle class parties.

France emerged from World War II to face a series of new problems. After a short period of provisional government initially led by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the Fourth Republic was set up by a new constitution and established as a parliamentary form of government controlled by a series of coalitions. There was a constitutional imbalance that produced a weakness of the executive under the Fourth Republic in France, and a consequent instability of cabinets. The mixed nature of the coalitions and a consequent lack of agreement on measures for dealing with Indochina and Algeria caused successive cabinet crises and changes of government. The Fourth Republic systematically pushed the Communists and Gaullists aside: Socialists, Radicals, Christian Democrats and moderates took power in turn at the head of loose coalitions.

France had been subjected to the ordeal of two wars in thirty years. Fewer lives were lost in the Second World War (about 600,000 dead) than in the Great War, but material losses were far greater. Fighting and bombing destroyed cities, factories, bridges, railway lines and stations. The devastation was compounded by the fact that the occupying power had intensively exploited the French economy. Nonetheless, there was a remarkable growth period as the country recovered: times were hard, but peace had restored confidence in the future - as the upsurge in population growth known as the "baby boom" demonstrates - and American Marshall Aid made it possible to attend to the most pressing needs.

From 1945, despite the tough circumstances, emergency measures were taken. Key sectors of the economy were nationalized (energy, air transport, savings banks and insurance) along with major companies (such as Renault) and the Social Security (welfare) system was set up, as were works committees and economic planning under the guidance of Jean Monnet.

The party structure as it emerged from the October 1945, elections was characterized by the predominance of three big groups of almost equal strength, the Mouvement Republicain Populaire [MRP], the Socialists, and the Communists. The extent to which this result was a consequence of the change in the electoral system should not be exaggerated. The number of seats attributed to the Right and the Radical Socialists was, to be sure, somewhat smaller than it would have been under a better balanced proportional system, in which they would have had a chance to collect all their remainders from the departmental lists. But even if arithmetical justice had allowed five per cent more seats for the smaller groups, the essential result of the elections, the dominance of the three majority groups who had received more than seventyfive per cent of the popular vote, would not have been changed. However, the losses of the Right, though severe, did not approach a rout. Traditional Rightist strongholds, like the rich agricultural and wine-growing departments Cote-d'Or and Yonne, the traditionally nationalist Vosges, and the historical Rightist stronghold, the Vendee, were still solidly Rightist. Altogether the Right had managed to remain the strongest political group in nearly twenty of the departments.

The emergence of big, relatively stable parties built around programs of definite social action rather than around personalities is not an altogether new phenomenon in France. Throughout the many vicissitudes of their existence, the Socialists had always tried to become such a party. The 1936 elections had catapulted the hitherto small Communist group into a prominent position. However, the single-member constituencies which then prevailed made possible many temporary alliances in run-off elections, and effectively counteracted or delayed the building up of a well-disciplined party system.

The victory of the MRP is not chiefly to be explained in terms of its being the party most closely identified with de Gaulle. This explanation, so valid in accounting for the party's victory in the October, 1945 election, would not by itself explain the still more farreaching success in May, 1946, when de Gaulle had at least temporarily ceased to be an active force in politics. It has to be interpreted as the result of the increasing conviction of many voters that only a big middle-class party could stem the Communist tide.

The political forces that had emerged from the Resistance - Communists, Christian Democrats and Socialists - and had supported the provisional government of General de Gaulle soon disagreed as to what institutions the new France should have and what direction the economy should take. The former leader of Free France left the government in January 1946 and in 1947 founded a new political party, the RPF, the Rassemblement du peuple français ("Rallying of the French People"). Two constituent assemblies elected by universal suffrage (women got the vote in 1944) and three referenda were required before the adoption of the Constitution of the Fourth Republic (promulgated on 27 October 1946), which established an all-powerful National Assembly and a President with limited powers.

The lower chamber was strengthened and the cabinet was made responsible solely to it. The president and the upper chamber were given only consultative functions. This represented a victory for the Communists and the Socialists and a defeat for de Gaulle and the Popular Republicans who desired a strong executive. Safeguards were placed in the new constitution to prevent the rapid and capricious overthrow of ministries that had been the curse of the Third Republic. In January, 1947,Parliament elected Vincent Auriol President of the Republic, and Paul Ramadier, a Socialist, became the first regular Premier with a cabinet comprised of Socialists, Communists, and Popular Republicans. It appeared that France was about to launch a program of moderate socialism similar to that of Britain's Labor government. However, hardly had the new regime begun to function than the tensions created by the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union began to tear the leftist coalition apart.

In March, 1947, President Truman openly proclaimed America's "get-tough-with-Russia" policy-the so-called Truman Doctrine of containing the Soviet Union and supporting any faction anywhere in the world that was opposing Russia or communism. In April, 1947, the militant and messianic General de Gaulle returned to the tempestuous French political arena at the head of a new rightist party named Rally of the French People. This party was made up of extreme nationalists, militarists, Roman Catholic clergy, and various conservative groups. It was militantly anti-Communist, and advocated a rightist authoritarian type of government. To its banner were drawn many of the more Conservative members of the Popular Republican party. On the other hand, the Communists, in May, 1947, broke away from the leftist coalition, supported labor groups who were striking against the government's wage freeze, and lined up with the Soviet Union against the United States in foreign policy. Since the Communists represented approximately one-fourth of the French people at the time, this was a serious defection.

Beset by powerful extremists on both the right and the left, the various moderate parties organized a shaky "Third Force" coalition and attempted to pursue a liberal democratic program. The inflated cost of living continued to be its chief problem. Its socialist wing became increasingly disgruntled with the wage-freeze part of the government's deflationary policy, as did the Communists and the working classes generally. Ministries followed each other in seemingly endless succession, but no reshuffling of the various Third Force groups could change the hard fact that all of the deep-seated cleavages that had torn the Third Republic not only were still present but were intensified by the cold war.

Divisions resulting from the Cold War and decolonization were added to internal political divisions. Despite Communist opposition, France confirmed its Atlantic sympathies and placed itself firmly in the Western camp. France joined the European Organization for Economic Cooperation (EOEC), set up in April 1948 to distribute American aid, and became a member of the Atlantic Alliance (NATO) in April 1949. One price that all France had to pay for American support was a sharp increase in the cost of living which was induced by the vast Western rearmament program of the United States and its ensuing inflation. This burden, of course, fell most heavily upon the lower middle and working classes. In the spring of 1951 strikes by the Paris transportation workers tied up the French metropolis for many days. The long-delayed general elections of June, 1951, however, produced no decisive change. Although the election laws were rigged against the Communists, they held their own in the popular vote and suffered only moderate losses in the Chamber of Deputies. General de Gaulle's rightist Rally of the French People gained the greatest number of seats and ranked second to the Communists in popular vote. However, the coalition of center parties was able to maintain a slight majority against both the extreme left and the extreme right. Its center of gravity, however, moved slightly to the right.

After Germany was divided, France opted for a policy of entente with West Germany which was to lay the foundations of the European Community. Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer were instrumental in bringing the two countries closer together - a strategy which resulted, in 1951, in the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), a first milestone on the road to a united Europe. France played an active role in setting up the European Economic Community (EEC) or Common Market instituted by the Treaty of Rome signed on 25 March 1957.

But rejected the idea of a European defence community (EDC). The movement against ratification of the treaty to establish the EDC developed in all countries and caused an acute political crisis in France the people of which thrice (in 1871, 1914 and 1940) had been the victim of German aggression. The supporters of the restoration of German remilitarization undertook every measure to achieve their goals. The US Secretary of State Dulles, as the American historian N. Grabner has written, "in 1953 and the first months of 1954 proposed employing on France 'shock reatment,' endeavoring to force the ratification of the EDC Treaty both on the French National Assembly as well as on the French people. In expecting the rejection of the EDC by France, the U.S. Senate (88 in favor and 0 against) favored a unilateral approach by America to German rearmament. The Senate Armed Services Committee clearly stated its determination to cut off aid to France if it did not ratify the EDC Treaty. The plans of the reaction were defeated. On 30 August 1954, the French National Assembly by a majority of votes refused to review the treaty and this meant a rejection of its ratification.

The French instituted their nuclear weapons program through a complex process that included the contributions of the French scientists associated with British, Canadian, and U.S. efforts during World War II, General de Gaulle's establishment of the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique in 1945, the series of limited decisions during the Fourth Republic (1946-1958), and the wide-ranging decisions of the Fifth Republic.

Decolonization had led to a serious crisis for the Fourth Republic. Decolonization had started in Indochina, from which France had to retreat after eight years of a difficult war. The president of the Council, Pierre Mendès France, ended the conflict with the adoption of the Geneva Accords of 20 July 1954. Morocco and Tunisia became independent in 1956, while in sub-Saharan Africa a peaceful process of decolonization had begun.

But in Algeria, decolonization took place following a conflict which lasted from 1954 until 1962 and was to bring down the Fourth Republic. Algeria was not a French colony like Morocco or Indochina, but was considered part of the Fourth Republic. Following WW II, France divested itself of most colonial responsibilities. But Paris would not consider independence for Algeria andwould not permit nativeAlgerians what they considered adequate representation. Algeria's local governments were dominated by European-origin colons who established farms or businesses in northern Africa.

By the summer of 1955, the violence had risen to extraordinary levels. The next year saw a massive call up of French conscripts and extentions of mandatory military service from 18 to 36 months. With the increased troop strength, General Raoul Salan, who was appointed to the combined civil-military position of Resident-Minister and Commander-in-Chief in Algeria, was able to implement the very effective strategy of quadrillage. This involved dispersing the troops throughout the countryside in demarcated zones to conduct rapid and decisive sweeps by military patrols to kill or capture fleeing insurgents.

The final years of the Fourth Republic were marked by the paralysis of the system and by its inability to deal with the major challenge posed by decolonization. Three and a half years after the start of the war in Algeria on 1 November 1954, the Fourth Republic collapsed. France faced a rising in Algeria, which was demanding its independence, and the threat of an insurrectional takeover of power by French military leaders in Algiers.

Finally, on May 13, 1958, the government structure collapsed as a result of the tremendous opposing pressures generated in the divisive Algerian issue. When the Gaillard government fell in France, the generally accepted opinion was that this was merely another episode in the lamentable history of the Fourth Republic. Another weak government would be formed, which would limp along until replaced by an even weaker successor. Some, however, felt that this was the last straw, that the French would no longer tolerate a system which made them politically impotent. In spite of their counsel, the possibility of a Gaullist regime was still being denied by some almost up to the moment when de Gaulle took power.

On May 13, 1958 René Coty, the President of the Republic, called upon General de Gaulle, who had, at that stage, withdrawn from political life, to form a new Government. The threatened coup led the parliament to call on General de Gaulle to head the government and prevent civil war. The Constitution of October 4, 1958 was framed in reaction to the excesses of the assembly system and to the Fourth Republic which was unable to deal with the crises created by decolonization. General de Gaulle became Prime Minister in June 1958 (at the beginning of the Fifth Republic) and was elected President in December of that year.

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Page last modified: 18-10-2015 20:21:49 ZULU