France has existed for over a millenia; how many governments has it had in that time?
France has existed for over a millenia; how many governments has it had in that time?
The French have a reputation for overthrowing governments they don’t like and replacing them with new ones which they also don’t like. But how many governments has France actually had?
Before we begin, let’s define ‘government’ as a type of governmental system, such as a monarchy, democracy or republic. With this definition the Fourth and Fifth Republics were two governments, while the presidencies of Charles de Gaulle, Mitterrand and Macron were just administrations within a government.
The first French government was the Ancien Régime, or Old Regime. This was a monarchy whose society was divided between Three Estates: those who pray, those who fight and those who work. Essentially, the clergy and nobility, who made up 5% of the population, ruled over the other 95%. At the very top of society was the king, and unlike Britain it was always a king, Salic law being sexist and all that.
Depending on when we date the beginning of the Old Regime this system lasted between roughly 1,300 years if we say it began with Clovis I, or 800 years if it began with Hugh Capet. There is a saying that, “The Old Regime has no definite beginning but an end, while the Revolution has a definite beginning but no end,” which is a fancy way for historians to avoid getting into a prolonged debate about technicalities.
Throughout its existence the Old Regime was challenged externally by its neighbors. During the Hundred Years’ War England conquered roughly half the country, whereas in other centuries French territory was threatened by Holy Roman Emperors and Hapsburg rulers.
The Old Regime was not a static construct but constantly changed with the times. Its longest-running conflict was the power struggle between the monarch, who wanted power centralized under himself and the aristocracy, who fought to retain or expand their privileges against the king.
The Old Regime was ruled by many monarchs and multiple dynasties but its basic structure remained largely the same. This was because before the 1700s regular transportation and communication was limited to the very rich. Popular rebellions had little chance of spreading beyond the immediate region where they began. If these uprisings moved from one locality to another they lacked coordination due to irregular contact between the groups. Furthermore, low levels of literacy meant that very few people had complex ideas about republicanism, democracy and other alternatives to monarchy. In contrast the heavily armed and militarily-competent aristocracy could communicated and coordinate reliably across long distances, making it very easy for them to crush peasant revolts. This situation changed by 1789 when better roads and the printing press meant that the middle and lower classes could communicate, travel and develop more complex ideas about society.
In 1789 France began the first and most famous of its revolutions. Between 1789-1791 the government was something of a hybrid between the Old Regime and something new. The king retained enormous legal power, though in practice the newly-formed National Constituent Assembly and the people of Paris exercised a large amount of control over the country.
On 20 June 1791 King Louis XVI and his family secretly fled Paris in an event known as the ‘Flight to Varennes.’ The king and his confidants believed that most of the French people remained loyal to him and that it was only some troublemakers in Paris that were holding him hostage, and so he fled to the countryside to rally his armies. Someone recognized Louis XVI along the way and republican forces seized the king and returned him to the capital. His obvious attempt to escape and crush the people of Paris did not go over well and on the 3 September the National Constituent Assembly reformed the government into a constitutional monarchy. France’s first governmental system, the Old Regime, had ended, and this new government took its place, though not for long.
The constitutional monarchy was practically doomed for failure. Publicly, Louis XVI had little choice but to accept, but privately he opposed the government’s legitimacy. The Legislative Assembly regularly passed laws only for the king to veto them, signaling to the increasingly agitated public that nothing would get done about the country’s many problems. Tensions reached a fever pitch on 20 April 1792 when France declared war on Austria due to their refusal to remove troops from the border, who were there to support the French monarchy. Things took a dramatic turn on 1 August when the people of Paris received the Brunswick Manifesto, a joint declaration by Austria and Prussia to attack the city if any harm came to the king. The threat had the exact opposite effect as intended and further turned the people of Paris against the monarchy. On 10 August armed revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace and massacred the Swiss Guard defending the king. Between 2-6 September armed crowds stormed the city’s prisons, massacring nobles and clergy out of fear they would fight against the popular government.
As the revolution radicalized in the streets political leaders responded. On 21 September 1792 the National Convention abolished the monarchy and stripped Louis XVI of all his titles, at which point he became known simply as Louis Capet. The constitutional monarchy had died while the First Republic was born.
The Republic stood on shaky ground. While many politicians wanted to stabilize the country the people of Paris regularly pressured them to take more radical action. Success at the Battle of Valmy emboldened the Revolutionary leaders who believed that they no longer needed to hold Louis Capet as a hostage. When soldiers discovered Louis had been corresponding with foreign powers the government put him on trial. On 15 January 1793 they voted that he was guilty and executed him on the 21st.
The First Republic found itself in the midst of a continental war as the monarchies of Europe tried to squash the upstart democracy. Despite this, the French army performed remarkably well. It repulsed invasions and conquered, I mean ‘liberated,’ many of its immediate neighbors. At home, the National Convention under Maximilian Robespierre began ‘The Terror,’ in which suspected anti-revolutionaries were brought before sham trials and then sent to the guillotine. Over 16,000 people were executed with another 10,000 dying in prison without trial. The Terror ended on 28 July 1794 when a cheering crowd watched Robespierre face the guillotine.
Robespierre’s followers were executed or out of power by the end of 1794. In 1795 political leaders reformed the Republic. On 3 November 1795 they abolished the National Convention and replaced it with a bicameral legislature comprised of the Council of Elders and the Council of Five Hundred. The executive branch was redubbed ‘The Directory,’ and controlled by a rotating group of five men, except for Paul Barras who managed to stick through its entire existence. The Directory moved France towards a more moderate position to appease Catholics and attempted to stabilize the economy. I say ‘attempted’ because these attempts were a disaster. Failed economic policies resulted in hyperinflation. Meanwhile the powers of Europe reunited in the Second Coalition to take down France.
With the Directory struggling to survive, a popular general named Napoleon Bonaparte abandoned his campaign in Egypt and traveled back to Paris where he overthrew the government in a coup on 9 November 1799. Napoleon instituted a period known as ‘The Consulate,’ under which three Roman-style consuls exercised enormous power over the country. At least in theory; in practice, First Consul Bonaparte ran the show. On 4 August 1802 he declared himself Consul for life. If that wasn’t enough of a clue as to his real intentions, on 18 May 1804 he had the Senate declare him Emperor of the French. At this point we can clearly say that the First Republic was over. France was now under the First Empire.
It’s debatable whether or not the various systems within Revolutionary France should be counted as their own government or whether they were all just different iterations of the First Republic. From 1792 to 1804 every political leader claimed to be representing the republic. Furthermore, this republic was based on the ancient Roman Republic, which was not a popular democracy and could be incredibly authoritarian under the power of consuls. Thus, when Napoleon declared the Consulate this was still within the framework of a Roman-style republic. For purposes of simplicity, let’s say that the First Republic was a single form of government with different styles, and was the third of France’s governments, after the Old Regime and the short-lived constitutional monarchy.
The fourth government of France was the First Empire. For eight glorious years between 1804 to 1812 Napoleon led the country to dominate Europe. Then in 1812 he launched a disastrous war against Russia. The cold winter, disease and lack of food decimated the Grand Armée, which prompted the European powers to get the band back together and launch the War of the Sixth Coalition. On 11 April 1814, with no other options, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the British-controlled island of Elba just off the western coast of Italy and not far from France.
In the post-war negotiations the monarchies of Europe agreed to restore the Bourbons to power. However, many French people could not accept an absolute monarchy. Thus, the exiled Louis XVIII, brother of the executed Louis XVI, accepted the Charter of 1814 as a compromise. On 6 April 1814 Louis XVIII became King of France as a powerful constitutional monarch. Thus began the Restoration, France’s fifth government. The Restoration was briefly interrupted in March 1815 when Napoleon snuck off of Elba and tried to remake the empire, but defeat at Waterloo ended that dream. With Napoleon exiled to Saint Helena off the coast of southern Africa the Restoration government finally got underway.
Louis XVIII despised the Revolution. He replaced the tricolor with the white Bourbon flag and took up the title King of France, rather than King of the French as he claimed he was sovereign rather than the people. These symbols made him unpopular. Despite his pretentions to absolute monarchy he knew that his country had changed and tried to rule with an even hand. The first chamber of deputies during his reign was more ardently absolutist than he was, and his government soon gained a reputation for being, “more royalist than the king.” In response Louis XVIII dissolved the chamber and brought in more liberals.
If Louis XVIII knew when to compromise his younger brother and successor did not. Charles X was an arch-royalist who wanted to undo the entirety of the Revolution and return the country to the Old Regime. He was so attached to medieval ideas that he brought back the ‘royal touch’ ceremony wherein the king laid his hands on sick people to cure them of their diseases, namely tuberculosis. He gave reparations to landowners who lost property during the Revolution and imposed the death penalty for sacrilege. His actions were notably unpopular and more liberals were elected to government. In response, on 9 July 1830 Charles X announced he was going to rule through ordinances and bypass elected officials. On 26 July he suspended the freedom of the press, dissolved the Chamber of Deputies and removed the middle-class from future elections. After losing nearly all of their political rights the rising bourgeoisie decided to use the last one they had: revolt. Within three days The Restoration was over.
In the aftermath of the July Revolution the Chamber of Deputies drafted the Charter of 1830. The Charter made France a constitutional monarchy with more limitations placed upon the king, freedom of the press, and representation for the middle class, but not poor people who most of the educated viewed as unintelligent rabble. To head this new government the Chamber chose Louis-Philippe, cousin of Charles X, and head of the House of Orléans, a cadet branch of the House of Bourbon. Thus began France’s sixth government: the July Monarchy.
Louis-Philippe accepted the title ‘King of the French,’ which acknowledged that sovereign authority came from the people and he was just their leader. The tricolor came back as France’s flag. Moreover, he welcomed some of the middle class into the government. It was as if Louis-Philippe was determined not to follow his predecessor and get overthrown in a revolution. After 18 years in power he forgot those lessons and clamped down on press freedom and the freedom of assembly. The middle class were already upset with him given that only a small percentage of them could actually participate in government. These new measures were too much and on 22 February 1848 a revolution broke out. Like Charles X, Louis-Philippe was out of power in just three days. Like Charles X he tried and failed to make his son the new king. Finally, Charles X and Louis-Philippe both fled to Britain. France’s sixth government had fallen. In its place, Alphonse de Lamartine declared the birth of the Second Republic, which by our counting is the 7th government.
The Second Republic’s government was initially divided between the liberal republicans and the radical socialists, the latter of which were popular in large cities but had little following in the country. The socialists passed a series of reforms which included universal male suffrage and the opening up of national workshops as part of a program to guarantee employment for all citizens. The first national workshops launched in Paris. These struggled to find productive labor for all of the unemployed applying for jobs and could barely pay the workers. These failures prompted the government to announce that the workshops would be closed. The thousands of people who depended on the workshops did not take the news well and on 24 June began a three-day long uprising. Unlike previous 3-day uprisings which had quite the record of success, the government managed to violently put down this one.
If the June Days Uprising did not immediately kill the Second Republic it delivered a fatal wound. The government’s brutal crackdown against workers turned republicans and socialists against it. Outside of Paris and some large cities the majority of the country were monarchists who did not want the Second Republic. Between 10-11 December 1848 France held a presidential election and Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte won over 74% of the vote. Louis-Napoleon was the nephew of the former emperor and that really was his only qualification for the job. In 1836 he tried to launch a coup in Strasbourg, which failed and he fled to Switzerland. Then in 1840 he attempted to overthrow the government again but was captured and spent six years in prison before escaping. When the February 1848 revolution broke out and overthrew the July Monarchy, Louis-Napoleon returned to France where everyone knew he was going to try to seize dictatorial power again. Some officials wanted to arrest him but the general consensus was that he was too incompetent to pose a serious threat, with one newspaper claiming that he was, “a turkey who believes he’s an eagle.”
Louis-Napoleon might not have been a serious politician in February 1848 but with virtually everyone turning against the Second Republic by December he swept into power as its president. The ‘Prince-President’ filled his cabinet with monarchists while shoring up his support among Catholics. In 1850 he toured the country calling for reform to give him more power. Then on 2 December 1851 he dissolved the Chamber of Deputies, imprisoned his political enemies and called for a new legislature to grant him a ten-year term. There were a number of republicans and socialists who joined resistance movements to the coup, including famed writer Victor Hugo, but the military easily defeated them. While many people did not want Louis-Napoleon in power very few thought that the Second Republic was worth fighting for. One year after seizing dictatorial power Louis-Napoleon officially declared himself Emperor of the French as Napoleon III. The Second Republic was over. The Second Empire had begun.
At the beginning of the Second Empire Napoleon III launched a number of major projects. First, he ordered the Prefect of the Seine, Georges Haussmann, to tear down dilapidated neighborhoods and create grand boulevards within Paris. Ostensibly this was to bring ‘light and air’ to the capital. In reality he wanted to destroy the tightly-packed buildings that were ideal for making barricades and replace them with wide boulevards that cannons could be wheeled through that could blast away any ad hoc defenses. Regardless of his intentions, the result was that the old medieval city cleared out many of its slums and replaced them with beautiful apartments and monumental buildings all while installing a modern sewer system. Napoleon III’s cabinet oversaw construction of a country-wide railway network. Further economic reforms modernized the economy as it sought to catch up with Britain.
The Second Empire had a mostly-successful foreign policy for over a decade. It joined Britain in the victorious Crimean War against Russia. France supported the Kingdom of Sardinia’s war against Austria, and in exchange Sardinia ceded Nice and Savoy. France expanded its presence in East Asia, though it failed to establish a friendly government in Mexico.
By the late 1860s the Second Empire grew increasingly unpopular. The economy was slowing down, Protestants, Jews, intellectuals and women resented its favoritism towards conservative Catholics at the expense of everyone else. While Napoleon III had continued the practice of universal male suffrage he made sure that elections had little meaning, which was an ongoing source of resentment.
Unfortunately for France: Germany. Well, not yet. Western Europe had experienced a period of nationalism in the 18th-19th centuries, but no pan-German state united all the German-speaking people, though multiple attempts were made. By the latter half of the 19th century the primary German-speaking territories were then divided between Prussia, Austria and numerous smaller states. The Chancellor of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, considered himself a Prussian, rather than a German, but he realized that German nationalism could be a useful tool against socialism. Bismarck believed that unifying the German people into one great empire would distract people from class tensions.
In 1864 Bismarck led his country into a successful war against Denmark which expanded its territory. In 1866 he launched a war against Austria which saw Prussia emerge as the leader of the smaller German states. Afterwards Bismarck believed that one more major war could unite the German lands outside of the Austrian Empire. Since France was right next door that was his target. However, he wanted France to declare war against Prussia first which would turn international opinion against France as the aggressor while drawing the other German states to rally behind Prussia in mutual defense.
Operation ‘Piss-off France’ centered around Spain, which had recently experienced a revolution that resulted in the removal of Queen Isabella II. The Spanish were not yet ready for a republic and so they began looking for a new monarch. Bismarck suggested that Leopold of House Hohenzollern, the ruling house of Prussia, could become Spain’s new king. French politicians refused to have Prussian kings on two borders and demanded they withdraw Leopold’s candidacy, which they succeeded in doing. On 13 July 1870 the French ambassador met with Wilhelm King of Prussia at the spa town of Ems where they had a polite discussion about the Spanish throne. The ambassador told him that France’s position was that no Prussian king ever sit on the throne, to which the King of Prussia did not assent and the two went their own way. Politeness usually doesn’t start wars, so Bismarck released a modified report of their exchange which was far more confrontational than what had actually occurred. Newspapers across Europe published the Ems Telegram and people in both France and Prussia believed that the other country was threatening them. On 19 July France officially declared war against Prussia.
The Franco-Prussian War did not go well for the Francos. The other German states united their forces with Prussia just as Bismarck had predicted. Furthermore, Prussia had a well-equipped and trained military. On 1 September Napoleon III led a French army to defeat at the Battle of Sedan where he was captured the following day. When news reached Paris that Napoleon III had been captured republican leader Léon Gambetta declared the end of the Second Empire and the birth of the Third Republic.
France’s ninth government took over in the midst of a losing war. On 28 January 1871 Paris fell to Prussian forces, prompting the new government to surrender. What followed was a humiliating treaty that saw France pay a huge indemnity and give up its eastern territories of Alsace-Moselle.
On 8 February 1871 the country held its first election. Monarchists won 416 of the 638 seats in Parliament, leaving only 222 for republicans. 2/3rds of the Republic’s legislature were controlled by people who did not think the republic should exist. Yet, the republic was saved because the monarchists were divided. Roughly half were Orléanists who supported a candidate from the House of Orléans. Just under half were Legitimists who supported a Bourbon restoration. Twenty legislators were Bonapartists. There was another major division within each monarchist group, that between absolutists and constitutionalists. Absolutists wanted a strong monarch ala the Old Regime or the Empires while the constitutionalists wanted a relatively weak monarch or even a figurehead as was the case in Britain.
1871 was a trying year for the Third Republic. Prussian won the military victory in January, monarchists won electoral victory in February and in March radicals in Paris declared that the city would become its own independent government. But the national government suppressed the Paris Commune by the end of May, restored peace and began the process of healing. With each passing year the people increasingly viewed monarchism as an outdated relic. In the 1876 election republicans won almost 3/4s of all the seats. The republicans formed a strong majority which would last until the early 1900s when the socialists rose to popularity, and even then most socialists were non-revolutionary and believed in social reform through democratic means.
The Third Republic faced many challenges during its existence. There was a brief threat of a military coup from supporters of General Georges Boulanger. The Dreyfus Affair was a political thunderstorm that heightened every insecurity the country faced and polarized its citizens. In 1914 German forces tried to conquer the country during World War I. 1.5 million French soldiers were killed and another 3.4 million wounded in a country of roughly 40 million people. Afterwards there was a brief period of peace and growth before the onset of the Great Depression. Economic turmoil led to political polarization. For decades the far-right had been lost in the wilderness as they stuck to the unpopular and outdated ideology of monarchism. By the 1920s fascism gave the far-right a new set of ideas and practices to rally behind. The 1930s was marked by public rallies and street-fighting between the fascists on the far-right and the socialists and communists on the far-left.
Despite all the challenges that it faced the Third Republic survived for almost seventy years, longer than any republic France has had up to this point. The monarchists failed to overthrow the government during its infancy and for roughly the next 60 years republicanism was by far the most popular ideology. Only in the 1930s as economic catastrophe set in did French people start to turn towards new extremes. Even then, no party was large enough to seize power and the left-wing Popular Front styled itself as a champion of democracy in the face of right-wing authoritarianism which had already seized Italy, Germany and Spain.
The Third Republic came to an end in 1940 during the early stages of the Second World War. The French military had not adequately adapted to the challenges of modern warfare while German military tacticians figured out how to coordinate and utilize infantry, tanks and air power to devastating effect. On 22 June 1940 France signed an armistice with Germany. On 10 July parliament voted to give Marshal Philippe Pétain complete control of the government, upon which he declared the end of the Third Republic.
Pétain dubbed the new government ‘The French State’ though it is popularly known as Vichy France because it was headquartered in the spa town of Vichy. This was not the Marshal’s choice. He had hoped to govern the country from Paris, specifically from the Louvre. Before the war began its director Jacques Jaujard had all the art and artifacts relocated to the countryside for protection, leaving the enormous and opulent building almost completely empty. Pétain viewed the Louvre as an ideal place to set up shop but Paris, the north of the country and the entire Atlantic coastline was under direct German military occupation. Negotiations stalled out and Pétain and his subordinates had to commandeer the local hotels at Vichy.
The French State was not fascist like Italy or Germany but Catholic reactionary ala Francisco Franco’s Spain. Pétain and his subordinates promoted a traditional society based around “Work, Family, Fatherland,” in contrast to the revolutionary “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” The state supported traditional gender roles, agricultural production as opposed to heavy industry, it replaced trade unions with state-controlled unions, censored the press and outlawed elections. It also pursued anti-Semitic policies and rounded up Jews for deportation. The French State remained nominally independent until November 1942. As the Allies took over Northern Africa Germany occupied the rest of the country and built up fortifications in the south to prevent an invasion.
Between 1944 and 1945 the Allies invaded France. They expelled the German forces while General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces, assumed control of the country. France’s tenth government went into the dustbin of history.
Between 1944 and 1946 a provisional government administered the country while debating what its next state should be. There was a broad, though not unanimous, consensus that France should have a republic. Beyond that, everything was up for debate. Charles de Gaulle wanted a strong presidency. While the Gaullists naturally rallied behind him, others worried that this system would pave the way for dictatorial takeover. In January 1946 de Gaulle resigned from the provisional government, believing that its other members needed him for legitimacy and would beg him to return. Instead they told him not to let the door hit him on the way out and went back to work. After ten months of negotiations on 27 October 1946 they agreed on a new Constitution. The Fourth Republic was born.
France’s eleventh government was designed as a multiparty system with a weak executive. This was to ensure that no person or party assumed too much power. The positive of this system was that politicians of numerous political parties would need to compromise in order to get anything done. The downside of this system was that politicians of numerous political parties would need to compromise in order to get anything done. The Fourth Republic was slow-moving and did not promote large-scale programs. Government paralysis became especially painful during the wars of decolonization, first in Indochina, then in Algeria.
The Algerian War for Independence broke the republic, which was trapped in a costly, unpopular war. On 13 May 1958 French military officials seized power from the civilian government in northern Algeria. They publicly demanded that de Gaulle take over mainland France, claiming that he was the only person popular enough to solve the crisis. On 19 May de Gaulle declared that he was willing to serve the republic as needed. On 24 May French forces from Algeria seized Corsica and prepared to assault the mainland. The country was on the brink of a civil war. On 1 June the National Assembly voted to give de Gaulle exceptional powers while he drafted a new constitution. On 28 September French citizens voted in a referendum on whether or not to support the new constitution with nearly 83% voting ‘Yes.’ On 4 October 1958 France officially adopted de Gaulle’s constitution for the Fifth Republic.
France’s twelfth, and so far final, government had to deal with the Algerian crisis. It was not long before President de Gaulle realized that Algeria was lost. His support for peace negotiations and an independent Algeria shocked the French generals who had essentially launched a coup for de Gaulle believing he would win the war for them. This led many of the pro-de Gaulle plotters to form the Secret Army Organization, a terrorist network that attempted to assassinate the president and any public officials who supported Algerian independence. The terrorists failed and on 18 March 1962 representatives from the two nations signed the Évian Accords, ending the war.
The Fifth Republic has experienced crises but few compare to those experienced by older governments. After the wars of decolonization France has not mobilized the majority of its military for war, and has mostly stuck to smaller-scale special operations. France’s economy has been among the most developed in the world. Its culture is widely-appreciated. It exercises global political influence through its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a leader of the European Union and through its own political and economic power. The Fifth Republic appears on track to surpass the Third as the longest-lasting of the republics, barring an unforeseen crisis.
There is no universal consensus on what makes a ‘government.’ Some might argue that the National Assembly, Directory and Consulate were all different governments rather than expressions of the First Republic. Others might argue that the provisional governments which established each republic constituted their own government. Meanwhile, the First Empire and the Restoration popped in and out of existence depending on whether or not Napoleon escaped exile. Likewise, some might count the Paris Commune as a government even though it was restricted to the capital. If we count all these then France has had at least twenty governments. However, if we stick to the simplest counting system France has had 12 governments since it first came into being.
France experienced significant change and upheaval in the modern period, particularly from the beginning of the Revolution until the Franco-Prussian War. Between 1791 and 1871 France experienced 9 governments. On average that is a different system of government every 9 years. Statistically there have to have been some people who were born in 1791 and lived to be eighty years old. Those people lived through four kingdoms, three republics and two empires.