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The 1958 Constitution breaks the record for constitutional longevity of the Third Republic

This Monday, February 19, 2024, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic became the most durable in all of French constitutional history.

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The 1958 Constitution breaks the record for constitutional longevity of the Third Republic

This Monday, February 19, 2024, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic became the most durable in all of French constitutional history. After 65 years, four months and 16 days of existence, the fundamental text of 1958 broke the longevity record held until now by the first constitutional law of the Third Republic.

Comparison is not always right. What we refer to as “the Constitution” of the Third Republic is not exactly one and has little to do with the 1958 text. It is in reality three “constitutional laws”, voted by the National Assembly between February and July 1875. Schoolchildren briefly learn in primary school that the Third Republic was proclaimed on September 4, 1870, which is correct. But History places little emphasis on the fact that the restoration of the monarchy was clearly on the agenda in the months that followed, with the monarchists being in the majority in the Assembly. The Republic gradually took root as a compromise solution on the ground of division among monarchists. “This period could have led to anything other than a parliamentary Republic,” summarizes Olivier Dard, professor of History at the Sorbonne. The Republic finally settled with the famous Walloon amendment, which included in the first constitutional law of February 1875, the election of the “President of the Republic” by the National Assembly.

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Longevity does not necessarily mean sustainability. These constitutional laws of the Third Republic were rarely revised, only three times in 1879, 1884 and 1926. Conversely, no less than 24 constitutional reforms have been passed since 1958. Some have radically transformed the functioning of institutions: election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage in 1962, referral to the Constitutional Council by 60 deputies or senators in 1974, revision with a view to ratifying the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the transition to the five-year term in 2000, without forgetting the major reform of 2008, which modifies almost a third of the text. “The Constitution of 2024 no longer has much to do with that of 1958,” concludes Marcel Morabito, professor of constitutional law at Sciences Po (Constitutional history of France from 1789 to the present day, LGDJ, 2022).

“On the other hand, the constitutional laws of 1875 set a very general framework: the practice of institutions evolved without control or reform,” continues Marcel Morabito. An institutional flexibility which allowed the Third Republic to weather serious crises, from Boulangism to the Dreyfus Affair via the First World War, despite the great ministerial instability which characterized it. Conversely, the Fifth Republic made it possible to create stable parliamentary majorities, but weakened and dominated by the executive power. “The Fifth survived the political and then physical disappearance of General de Gaulle,” underlines Olivier Dard. Subsequently, she did not go through crises as serious as her elder, with the possible exception of May 68.”

Let us make no mistake, the longevity of the Fifth Republic has not yet exceeded that of the Third. It's just about constitutions. Indeed, September 4, 1870 remains the official date of the birth of the Third Republic, more than four years before the first constitutional law of 1875. Consequently, the Third Republic is still today the most lasting in History from France, with 69 years, 10 months and 6 days of existence. We will have to wait a little longer for the Fifth Republic to surpass it: see you on August 4, 2028!

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