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French history at a glance

A poor economic situation due to extravagant royal spending, many years of warfare, and a grossly inequitable system of taxation, led to widespread popular discontent which finally erupted in the French Revolution in 1789. Factors such as resentment of royal absolutism and aspirations for republicanism, the rise of enlightenment ideals, resentment of both religious intolerance and noble privilege, as well as more immediate causes such as food shortage and high unemployment, were also imperative. Louis XVI failed to effectively tackle these problems and was ultimately executed in 1793, and republicanism was subsequently introduced. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the ruling "Commitee of Public Safety". From 1803 to 1815 France was engaged in war where Great Britain was the prime enemy. An alliance with Russia broke down in 1812 and Napoleon marched on Russia, suffering defeat the year after. Napoleon was thus banished to Elba, a small island south of France from where he managed to escape two years later only to gather his troops and take his final defeat at the battle of Waterloo. After 1815, kings and princes attempted to curb popular demand for more democracy through a holy alliance. Both 1830 and 1848 thus saw revolutions originating in Paris. Both uprisings were suppressed, but in the long run led to ideas of political participation being established in Europe. The French revolution had been a pivotal period of not only French history, but it is also widely seen as a mayor turning point in the history of Western democracy, replacing absolutism and aristocracy with citizenry as the dominant political force.

Louis Napoleon became the first president elected by popular vote in 1848, and his coup d’etat three years later was the first collapse of a democratic regime. The Second Republic collapsed as a consequence of the defeat against Bismarck in the Franco-Preussian war in 1870. In the aftermath of the French loss, the population of Paris attempted through the Paris Commune the first modern socialist revolution. The Third Republic came about as a result of disagreements on which of the three dominant dynasties (Bourbon, Orléans or Bonaparte) was to deliver the monarch. The First World War (1914-18) ravaged northern and eastern France, killing 1.4m young Frenchmen. France thus spent the inter-war period seeking to guarantee its security. Germany, however, invaded again in 1940, and set up the collaborationist Vichy government in the unoccupied southern third of the country. Allied and French forces eventually liberated France in 1944, leading to the restoration of democracy under the Fourth Republic.

The post-war climate fostered new cooperation in Europe. France was instrumental in the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, the European Union’s forerunner, as well as in the establishment of NATO. Revolt in its colonies soon shook France and the debate over whether or not to keep control of Algeria, then home to over 1 million European settlers, wracked the country and nearly led to civil war. In 1958 General Charles de Gaulle was thus asked to form a government and was handed the task of revising the constitution. De Gaulle served from 1958 to 1969 and his political ideology (known as Gaullism) has been a major influence in subsequent French politics. 

Politics in the new era

Politics in the Fifth Republic takes place in a framework of a semi-presidential system, whereby the president is head of state and the prime minister head of government. Executive power is exercised by the government. Up to 1986 the political system had undergone what can be termed "presidentialisation" (i.e. strengthening of the presidency). In 1986, however, the legislative election was for the first time won by parties of a different political ideology than the president, forcing him to share power in a “cohabitation" arrangement (comprising president of one party, prime minister of another). Since then the powers of the president are much reduced during periods of cohabitation (of which there have been three since 1986). In a move to reduce the incidence of cohabitation, voters agreed in a referendum in 2000 to cut the president's term from seven years to five years.

France’s 30-year post-war economic boom ended in the mid-1970s, and in 1981 an unprecedented long period of left-wing rule began under François Mitterrand and the Socialist Party (SP). French politics have since then been dominated by two politically opposed groupings: one left-wing, centred around the French Socialist Party, and the other right-wing, centred around the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR) and its successor; the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

In 1995 Mitterrand was replaced by neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac (representing RPR) and Alain Juppé became prime minister.  In an early election, called by Chirac in 1997, Juppé was however defeated, and Lionel Jospin from the SP became prime minister. The tradition in periods of "cohabitation" is for the president to exercise the primary role in foreign and security policy, with the dominant role in domestic policy falling to the prime minister and his government. The "cohabitation" arrangement of Chirac and Jospin became the longest-lasting in the history of the Fifth Republic. In the 2002 presidential election Jospin did not make it to the final round and Chirac was re-elected president after defeating the right wing candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen representing the National Front. President Chirac subsequently appointed Jean-Pierre Raffarin as the new prime minister. Government in France is known for its high degree of centralization but in March 2003, parliament approved amendments to the constitution allowing for the devolution of quite wide-ranging powers to the regions and departments. In the light of low election turnout, the move was widely seen as a bid to re-engage voters disillusioned by the ubiquitous influence of what is often perceived as the Paris elite.

On May 29, 2005, French voters in the referendum on the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe turned down the proposed charter by a wide margin. This was generally regarded as a rebuke to Chirac and his government. Two days later, Raffarin resigned and Chirac appointed Dominique de Villepin, an independent and former foreign minister, as prime minister.

In October 2005, violence broke out in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris largely populated by immigrant communities and suffering from high unemployment and poor social housing. By early November some 300 towns and cities across France were experiencing unrest, which led Chirac to announce a scheme to increase the standard of living in impoverished suburban areas as well as to combat unemployment in such areas.

The April 2007 presidential election put Nicolás Sarkozy of the UMP in first place (31%), followed by Ségolène Royal of the Socialist Party (26%), Union for French Democracy (UDF) leader Francois Bayrou (19%), and Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front (10%). Since no candidate garnered more than 50 per cent of the vote, a run-off round between Sarkozy and Royal was organized in May. Following the second round Nicolas Sarkozy was elected the new president of France. The final results gave Sarkozy 53,06 per cent of the ballot over Royal's 46,94 per cent. Voter turnout for the second round was 83.97 per cent, which was at record high levels.


Heidar, K. and Berntzen E. (1998). Vesteuropeisk politikk: Partier, regjeringsmakt, styreform. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Recent History (France), in Europa World online. London, Routledge. University of Bergen. Retrieved 15 August 2006 from