On This day - 4th October

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The current Constitution of France

was adopted on 4 October 1958. It is typically called the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, and replaced that of the Fourth Republic, dating from 1946. Charles de Gaulle was the main driving force in introducing the new constitution and inaugurating the Fifth Republic, while the text was drafted by Michel Debré. Since then, the constitution has been amended twenty-four times, through 2008.1

The preamble of the constitution recalls the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen from 1789 and establishes France as a secular and democratic country, deriving its sovereignty from the people.

It provides for the election of the President and the Parliament, the selection of the Government, the powers of each and the relations between them. It ensures judicial authority and creates a High Court (a never-as-yet-convened court for trying the Government),2 a Constitutional Council, and an Economic and Social Council. It was designed to create a politically strong President.

It enables the ratification of international treaties3 and those associated with the European Union. It is unclear whether the wording, especially the reserves of reciprocity, is compatible with European Union law.

The Constitution also sets out methods for its own amendment: a referendum or a Parliamentary process with Presidential consent. The normal procedure of constitutional amendment is that the amendment must be adopted in identical terms by both houses of Parliament and then must be adopted by a simple majority in a referendum or by a three-fifths supermajority of the French Congress, a joint session of both houses of Parliament (article 89).

However, Charles de Gaulle bypassed the legislative procedure in 1962 by directly sending a constitutional amendment to referendum (article 11), which approved. That was highly controversial at the time, but the Constitutional Council ruled that since a referendum expressed the will of the sovereign people, the amendment had been adopted.

Principles

In the Constitution, are written the principles of the French Republic:

  • Social welfare, which means that everybody must be able to access free public services and be helped when needed.
  • Laïcité, which means that the churches are separated from the State and the freedom of religion is protected.
  • Democracy, which means that the Parliament and the Government are elected by the people.
  • Indivisibility, which means that the French people are united in a single sovereign country with one language, the French language, and all people are equal.