The Constitution of the Fifth Republic: History, Development & Major Aspects

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  • 0:02 The French Constitution
  • 0:39 History
  • 2:09 Contents
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Constitution of the Fifth Republic of France, what it contains, and the historical circumstances which led to its writing.

The French Constitution

Writing things down makes life easier for most people. Whether it's making a grocery list or recording a schedule for your day, having all your tasks written before you start can give you a tangible plan to read and manipulate, whether it's checking off items, adding to your list, or making other modifications. Some countries, like the United States, have taken this principle and used it to craft the very basis of their nations. In many Western countries, these founding documents, which form the basis of each country's laws and government, are often called constitutions. Today, we'll explore the constitution of one such country: France.


The current French constitution laid the foundation for what is known as the Fifth Republic of France, which has lasted from 1958 through the present day. The constitution was forged in the midst of a political crisis in France, in part because of the Algerian War of Independence. The French government was thrown into disarray when a May 13 coup by the French Army in Algiers overthrew the French colonial government in Algeria. Furthermore, the central French government in Paris was deeply unpopular with the French people as it had terribly mismanaged the Algerian War.

As such, the time was ripe for what the French Army in Algiers demanded: the return to power of Charles de Gaulle, a French World War II general and former president of France. De Gaulle immediately issued a declaration saying he was ready to take the reins of the French government yet again. Under pressure from the French Army in Algeria, de Gaulle was returned to power and granted a six-month period of extraordinary power - making him something akin to a dictator - with which he was charged with rewriting the French constitution.

The new French constitution was quickly drawn up by de Gaulle and his closest advisors and put to a national referendum. The Constitution received overwhelming support from the French populace, with over 80% of French voters voting yes. With that approval, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic was enacted into law in October 1958. It remains the foundation of French government today.


The Constitution was not, however, written from scratch. Indeed, the French Constitution cites both the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, a text written in 1789 during the French Revolution, and the 1946 Constitution of the Fourth Republic as other founding documents of France. More recently, the Constitution has been amended to also include the 2004 Charter of the Environment as a founding document of France.

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