SINCE the constitution of the Fourth Republic took effect in January 1947, less than eight years ago, there have been 15 successive cabinets in France. Times of government crisis, that is, periods when there has been no government at all (one cabinet having resigned and its successor not yet having been approved) have totalled over six months. These two sentences tell the story of how far political instability has gone in France today. It is not a new phenomenon. From 1789 to 1946 France lived under 13 different constitutions, not counting the provisional governments. The most lasting of them, that of the Third Republic adopted in 1875, saw 93 different governments within 65 years. But such instability has much more serious consequences today, when the complexity and multitude of problems facing France call more urgently for continuity in action.

Actually, of course, the situation is not quite so bad as it might seem. Although we have had 15 governments between January 1947 and July 1954, there have been in fact only three real changes in political orientation: the first, in May 1947, when the Communist Party was expelled from the government; the second, developed by stages between March 1952 and June 1953, when the Socialists went into opposition and thus made it necessary to bring the Gaullists into the majority and later into government; the third, in June 1954, when the circumstances under which M. Mendès-France became Prime Minister led the M.R.P. to go--temporarily perhaps--into opposition.

It must also be remembered that even though the governments of the Fourth Republic may not have lasted much longer than an average of six months, certain officials have been very much longer at the heads of the same departments and thus have given continuity to their policies. In fact, it usually happens that when a new government is formed 50 percent of the ministers of the preceding government remain in their jobs, 25 percent change jobs but stay in office, and only 25 percent turn their places over to newcomers.[i] The same stability of personnel was the rule in the past. There were only 49 different Prime Ministers in the 93 administrations of the Third Republic, and from 1880 to 1890 Georges Clemenceau could reply to those who reproached him for having overthrown too many cabinets that in fact it had always been the same one.

The French political system has neither a real separation of powers (since the cabinet is responsible to the National Assembly) nor an effective procedure for dissolving governments. In these circumstances it is a paradoxical fact that government crises may actually provide the executive branch with the means for getting its projects accepted by the legislative. More than once in the last eight years when parliament's refusal to vote unpopular fiscal proposals brought on a crisis, the plain impossibility of changing the majority and the reiteration of the same program by the various candidates for the Premiership have finally brought the National Assembly to admit the need for the measures and grant a new government what it had refused its predecessor.

Further, the instability of the political personnel is somewhat compensated for by the permanence of the administrative personnel. In ten years, for instance, France has had a dozen Ministers of Finance but only two Directors of the Budget and two Directors of the Treasury. Thus there exists a continuity on the administrative side which helps explain the frequent similarity of the projects of successive ministers, who in fact very often are defending in parliament only what their technical assistants have suggested to them.

But in spite of these mitigating factors political instability does represent a very grave evil in French political life. It is chiefly responsible for the sense of sterility and unreality which is felt not only by French people themselves but also, because of France's key position in the free world, by their allies. The present study, without making any direct reference to the current state of affairs, intends to probe into the basic reasons for French political instability and see what remedies might check or end it.


The main cause of the instability is evidently the excessive number of political parties, which forces the formation of coalition governments. These are at the mercy of any spell of bad humor on the part of one of its members who when he quits may hope to force his partners to take greater account of his program.

There are six main political shades in France today, and even these are not entirely united so far as party organizations and parliamentary groups are concerned.[ii] The situation is not new; since the beginning of the Third Republic there have always been at least as many parties seeking public support. This is because, in the first place, the French traditionally think about politics in terms of history and therefore tend to split over the problems of the past just as much as over those of the present. In 1871 the National Assembly included supporters of every régime that had existed in France from the time of the Revolution. Indeed, it was the irreconcilable division of the Catholic and Monarchist majority into Legitimists, Orléanists and Bona-partists which finally permitted the Republican constitution to be voted in 1875. One could, in fact, trace back several of the present French parties in almost direct line to those historical parties of the early days of the Republic.[iii]

The multitude of our parties is also partly explained by the diversity of France region by region and by the existence of individual political traditions in the various provinces. These factors are in addition, of course, to the well-known individualism of the French temperament as such. But even more important, perhaps, is the French taste for arguing about principles and above all the importance they attach to decisions of a political sort in a doctrinal sense. People who agree in practice on the concrete solutions of technical problems but who disagree on their philosophical aspects are prevented from speaking the same language and would have a very hard time forming the same party in France. That, for instance, quite as much as their division on the problem of state subventions for private schools, is what today prevents the Catholic conservatives of the moderate parties and the non-clerical conservatives of the Radical Party from joining forces in a Conservative Party and keeps the Catholic progressives of the M.R.P. and the non-clerical progressives of the Socialist Party from forming a Workers' Party.

The French electoral system has never, as it might have done, encouraged the various parties to draw closer to one another. Of course, one must not take the French electoral system as it has been since 1871 as the whole explanation of a situation which in reality existed much earlier. But it is nevertheless true that neither the single-member-district system with two ballots which was in force during almost all of the Third Republic, nor the system of proportional representation requiring a list of candidates for each electoral district, which has been in use since 1945, tended to simplify party groupings.

Under the Third Republic system, a candidate had to secure an absolute majority of the votes in order to be elected on the first ballot. If that was not obtained, there was a second ballot, and here a relative majority sufficed to win. No risk was involved if adjoining parties--or even a single party--presented several candidates in the first ballot, since their mutual opponent could not win unless elected by more than half the voters. Only in the second ballot did it become essential to collect as many votes as possible for one single candidate, usually the one who in the first ballot had obtained more votes than the candidates with tendencies similar to his own. These candidates of adjoining parties stepped down in his favor; but they kept hoping to outdo him in the next election and the particular political shade which they represented thus lived on. This system of balloting tended to perpetuate a multi-party system, but the parties were nevertheless capable of drawing closer to one another to form eventually two opposing camps defined by their mutual hostility. Until the First World War, and even, though less regularly, between the two wars, the numerous French parties did in fact regroup themselves generally into two large camps at the time of elections--one conservative, more or less anti-democratic and favorable to the Roman Catholic Church, the other progressive (in expression, at least), democratic and anti-clerical.

That is no longer so today; regroupings have become much more complicated. The former dividing factors were mainly political and religious. To these have now been added others of an economic, social and international order.

The institution in 1945 of proportional representation and voting by list in one ballot was in line with this new situation. Pure proportional representation was in use from 1945 to 1946; in 1951 it was modified to permit a merger of different lists and to allow them to share all the seats of a district provided their total votes exceeded an absolute majority. Both forms of the system evidently permit or indeed encourage a relatively large number of parties to flourish, especially in the densely populated departments of France where five or six different lists may each hope to get at least one candidate elected.

Thus the habit of having a multitude of parties appears to be traditional in France. It is deeply rooted in the habits of the people, it represents what they seem spontaneously to want, and their electoral institutions have always been organized so as not to hamper its development.


Old though it is, the instability of French governments resulting from too many parties and the need of forming coalition majorities in parliament has nevertheless assumed a new character and importance in our time. Until 1914 and even between 1919 and 1939 it resulted more from rivalries and personal ambitions than from real disagreements on policy. Also, the evils of frequent changes in government were not sufficiently obvious to cause a serious reaction against interpretations of the constitution which weakened the power of the Executive. The Executive was more and more at the mercy of parliament. The Chamber of Deputies could overthrow a cabinet at any moment, and when the two disagreed the cabinet could not appeal to the public because it had no way of forcing the dissolution of the Chamber and bringing on elections.

The gradual slipping away from a parliamentary system with balanced executive and legislative powers into a régime in which the legislative branch--and in particular the Chamber of Deputies--has almost absolute preponderance is the story of the constitutional evolution of the Third Republic.

The resulting instability and weakness is much more serious now than it used to be. Before 1914, currency stability, light taxation and slow economic progress (despite which revenues from French foreign investments easily kept the budget in balance) created conditions of social tranquillity. French political life thus was free to occupy itself almost exclusively with ideological and religious issues such as the Dreyfus Affair and the separation of Church and State. Government instability was of little importance under such conditions. Somewhat paradoxically, it went with the apparently permanent preponderance of a leftist coallition. French society was thoroughly based on free enterprise, and the Socialists were not yet numerous enough to represent a threat to it.

The two world wars changed all this.

The war of 1914-18 brought rapid industrialization to certain regions, followed by an increase of the working class. The political result was the strengthening of Socialism in the period between the wars and the rise of the Communist Party which, unlike the old Socialist Party, was hostile to democratic parliamentary practices. As a result, the homogeneity of the leftist coalition disappeared. The parties of the political left which were not leftist socially (i.e. essentially radical) more than once preferred to ally themselves with the Conservatives rather than with the Socialists both in forming governments and in elections.

Besides, the material destruction of two world wars, with the consequent inflation and wiping out of many French foreign investments, has thrown the French economy out of balance. Financial, fiscal and economic problems have taken a new place in public policy, government programs and parliamentary debates. Antagonism between social categories--farmers and city dwellers, employers and workers, government officials and businessmen--has become much stronger than it used to be. Each group tries to secure for itself a larger part of the national income at the expense of the other, devoting more effort to altering its distribution than to increasing its volume. Faced by questions which it never had to deal with before, the French political system has shown itself to be tied up in old-fashioned practices and incapable of modernizing them, hence largely impotent. Its impotence has aggravated the difficulties. Governmental instability no longer could be said to consist simply of rivalries and personal ambitions; it reflected a real incapacity to present problems correctly and to see the necessary alternatives. The governmental attitude toward the economic depression of the thirties tragically illustrated this lack of public spirit and political impotence.

The reason the true nature of these problems was not recognized was largely because they appeared in quite different forms in different regions and in different branches of economic life. Two-thirds of the departments of France, with more than 50 percent of the total population, had then and still have today an economic structure belonging more to the nineteenth than the twentieth century. Their agriculture, their trade and even their industry (or rather their crafts) are organized in small individual or family enterprises with very small working capital. Each has a very limited number of employees and works for only the local market. Their success or failure seems to depend much more on the personal qualities of the people who run them than on general economic conditions or on the government's social, fiscal, trade or public utilities policies.

This static France of small enterprises--perhaps it should be called this underdeveloped France--provides an ideal social setup for the survival of old-fashioned political habits--mistrust of the state, preference for weak and unstable governments, priority of ideological issues over standards of efficiency and performance in political life. It is here in the south and in the west of France, for instance, that religious issues continue to play a primary rôle, dividing the Radicals from the Moderates just as much as the Socialists from the Christian Democrats, even though their respective positions on economic and social matters may be much alike. And here, where the population is static or declining and there is no housing problem, there is a general if almost unconscious hostility toward the financial sacrifices that would be involved in an efficient government policy to solve the desperate housing problem which is creating such discontent among the workers in overpopulated industrial regions.[iv]

In a word, there are very obvious geographic differences in economic, social and demographic structure between the dynamic regions of present-day France in the north, the east and the environs of certain large cities and seaports and all the rest of the country; and this difference creates a lack of homogeneity in public attitudes which contributes greatly to the instability of political life.

Let us see now what has happened in practice, particularly since the Second World War intensified the economic and social problems of 30 years ago and since the recognition of French industrial backwardness led to plans for modernization which divert a larger proportion of the national income into capital investment, to say nothing of the part that goes into military expenses. The fact that an insufficient part of the national income is left for consumption intensifies the antagonism between social groups. In dynamic and modernized France, the France of the big cities and large enterprises, large sections of the population are attracted by the extreme parties, the Communists on one side and the Gaullists on the other. Between these extremes the France that is static and underdeveloped, the France of the rural districts and small enterprises which is also the moderate France, acts as arbiter. It keeps a check on Communism in elections, but it does not urge or even support a policy of economic expansion or social justice which might put Communism on the defensive. That is what gives instability to government coalitions of the various democratic parties, conservative as well as progressive. If the government's fiscal and social policy threatens the interests of the privileged classes, the conservatives abandon it. If its policy on the contrary is too timid, the progressives start the crisis. And this instability is aggravated when, as in 1951, the religious problem enters the sphere of politics in the question of government subventions for private schools and leads the anticlericals of the south and the Catholics of the west to take diametrically opposing stands.

Thus we see that the lack of homogeneity in the French economic and social structure is an almost insurmountable obstacle to political stability, even though it is often ignored by observers who study only the parties and political institutions as a means of learning how majorities are formed and durable governments might be created.


What chance is there of successfully remedying the varied causes of French political troubles outlined above?

The diagnosis of the troubles of the French party system made by General de Gaulle in a speech at Bayeux on June 16, 1946, does not need the change of a single word to make it true today. "In our country," he said, "party rivalry is so fundamental that it always puts everything in question and often blots out the higher interests of the country. This is an obvious fact, the result of the national temperament, historic events and present troubles, but one which in the future our institutions must take into account and guard against . . . our new democratic institutions must compensate for our habit of perpetual political effervescence." But if the diagnosis was right, the proposed remedy--the establishment of a quasi-presidential system but without a real separation of powers--could hardly have had any other effect than to aggravate still further the fights between parties and between parliament and the president.

The multitude of parties and the continuous political turmoil created by their rivalries might be reduced if reforms were adopted in the voting system and if the relationship between the executive and legislative branches could be improved. But that is not enough, since they are only the expression of the social disparity between underdeveloped France and dynamic France. That disparity, we have seen, is psychological as well as political. Hence action to improve the nation's economic structure is indispensable also.

First let us look at election reform. Many people simply recommend a return to the system as it was in the Third Republic (single-member-district system with two ballots). Some of the results of this would be happy--if only that it would abolish proportional representation, which puts up solid walls between the parties. But let us remember that already during the Third Republic there were too many parties, and although as sometimes happened between the two wars parties might join forces in elections (Radicals with Socialists and, in 1936, even with Communists) they would split up when it came to governing.

The Anglo-Saxon single-member system with one ballot and election by relative majority would obviously work powerfully to reduce the number of parties. But it would have that effect only in the long run, while at the start it would risk giving the Communist Party a representation in parliament really superior to its strength in the country. And afterwards there might be no way of checking it.

The type of ballot best suited to the needs of France would be a list system operating under the majority principle with two ballots, allowing neighboring parties to form coalition lists on the second ballot. Such a system would bring the parties closer and more permanently together than do the deadlocks created by the single-member ballot. Real solidarity would exist between deputies of various parties elected on the same list by the same voters after a joint campaign. This was the system recommended by Gambetta in 1881-82 precisely for the purpose of encouraging the formation of large homogeneous parties, the only way, he thought, to halt the deterioration of the parliamentary system and the weakening of the executive which already was beginning to be evident. There is, in fact, no other electoral system which can encourage neighboring parties to forget their divisions and form lasting alliances, for no other to the same extent makes this to the interest of the deputies themselves; for deputies of different parties who are elected on the same list in the second ballot must, if they wish to facilitate their reelection, stay united during the whole legislative session.

The list ballot just described has supporters in the present National Assembly, though undoubtedly not so many as the single-member ballot. But when the electoral system is reformed, as it almost certainly will be before the next elections (which ought in principle to occur in less than two years), it is not impossible that the votes of the present supporters of proportional representation may make the list system outweigh the single-member system. But in any case the single-member system would still be better than the proportional system because it would tend more effectively to reëstablish electoral coalitions between parties.

As to the relationship between the cabinet and the parliament, several suggestions for reform have been made recently, particularly by the Minister for Constitutional Reforms in the Laniel Cabinet, M. Barrachin. Their object is to make the executive more stable without giving it the right to dissolve parliament. Interesting as they may be, all such suggestions hit on the same snag: they all tend to allow the cabinet to stay in power even if parliament refuses to vote the bills which it considers necessary. Thus they run the risk of weakening the executive even further and moving another step toward government by the National Assembly.

Even though many deputies are not inclined to admit it, the truth is, as M. Paul Reynaud recalled in May 1953, that there can be no stable parliamentary régime, i.e. one which confers authority and responsibility on the executive in equal measure, unless it is given the power of dissolution. Most French specialists in political science recognize this, and their view was vigorously confirmed recently by Senator Gilbert Jules, rapporteur of the Committee on Constitutional Revision in the Council of the Republic. It is to be hoped that the pressure of public opinion will in the end bring the National Assembly to recognize the necessity.

But it must be repeated that even if the system of voting were reformed as suggested above and even if the executive were given the necessary power to dissolve the Assembly, the essential cause for French political instability would still remain. Old-fashioned habits would continue to flourish in the regions where the economic structure is individualistic, out-dated and under-equipped. Even if powerful currents of public opinion were formed in favor of an expanding and productive economic policy and a social policy directed at raising the standard of living of the working class, they would still meet with incomprehension in regions where the economic and social problems of the twentieth century do not arise simply because those regions are still in the nineteenth century.

Compared to an average per capita production of 100 for all of France, the figure is under 70 in 13 departments, between 70 and 80 in 20, between 80 and 100 in 31, between 100 and 110 in 11, between 110 and 120 in ten, and exceeds 120 only in five departments. This disparity in production corresponds to very profound differences, department by department, in economic structure and production methods, which in turn produce equally important differences in collective mentality and the way of looking at political problems. Here, in sum, is the basic cause of French political instability.

A policy of modernization, then, seems not only an economic necessity but a political must. It should not consist, however, of concentrating industrial, electrical, agricultural and commercial equipment in the regions which are the most productive today. On the contrary, it should extend a modernized economy to regions where it so far has hardly penetrated. It is a fact that party disputes over religious problems are much less strong--indeed often do not exist--in regions where a modern economic structure has made people conscious of the importance of economic and social problems. The rebirth of a collective public spirit in the departments of southeast France will no doubt be hastened by the power plants being built at Donzère-Mondragon and by the projects for irrigation and power production in the Durance valley. Similar results will be produced in the southwest, where the Gascony irrigation project will increase the productivity of a large agricultural region and enable it to specialize.

It must be understood, however, that the increase in production resulting from the modernization of the French economy should go to the benefit of the workers in order to prevent the strengthening of extremist parties and of the Communists in particular. This would be easier to achieve, of course, with an expanding income than it is under present conditions.

It naturally cannot be expected that the economic modernization of the whole territory of France will have immediate results in a political sense--which is one more reason why the remedies of an institutional order described above should be carried out meanwhile. But already the fact that plans for modernization and reëquipment of plant are under way has been a most encouraging factor and is arousing the initiative of many local administrations even in some of the less productive departments. Under the auspices of the Plan for Modernization, the coördination of local or regional projects is more advanced today than one might have hoped a few years ago, and the administrative and technical competence of the local bodies which more and more take an interest in these projects raises hope that if they are encouraged by the government they will be carried into effect methodically and efficiently.

All in all, then, we arrive at a conclusion which is not as pessimistic as it might have been if we had limited ourselves to an analysis of French political life and political institutions. The political instability of France is not the inevitable result of some congenital incapacity of the French people to govern themselves efficiently but rather of an economic and social unbalance which, of course, France should have perceived long ago but which she is now busily trying to set right. In this view, the results which we hope to achieve by modernizing our plant will be at least as important to our political life as they will be in the purely economic field.

[i] The Mendès-France cabinet of June 1954 is an exception in this respect, for only five of its 29 members belonged to the Laniel cabinet.

[ii] They are: 1, Communists; 2, Democratic Socialists; 3, Christian Democrats (M.R.P.); 4, Radicals (radical in the old etymological sense of the word, but as they have hardly changed at all while everything around has changed they have ended up as a socially conservative party, though rather unfavorable to the Roman Catholic Church and more or less true to certain leftist forms of expression); 5, Moderates (divided into Independents and Farmers and traditionally split by numerous personal rivalries and divergencies in policy); 6, the Gaullists (elected in 1951 on the list of the Rassemblement du Peuple Français some of whom are now a political group, the Union of the Social Republicans, outside the Rassemblement itself).

[iii]cf. René Rémond, "La Droite en France de 1815 à nos jours." Paris: Aubier, 1954.

[iv] The three Paris districts where the Communist Party got the largest percentage of votes in the 1951 elections were the ones with the worst housing conditions.

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  • FRANÇOIS GOGUEL, Professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques of the University of Paris; author of "France Under the Fourth Republic" and other works
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