Thoughts on the Fifth Republic’s Sixtieth

11 September 2018


To mark the sixtieth birthday of France’s Fifth Republic, I recently went and flipped through a chapter I had been meaning to come back to in Raymond Aron’s Démocratie et totalitarisme on the political crisis that led to De Gaulle’s return to power. The book was published in 1965 based on lectures given in the midst of that crisis seven years prior, and its overall aim is to sketch out the two types of political configurations Aron observed in the modern industrialized world. The title is a misnomer, since Aron does not categorize Western and Eastern Bloc countries respectively as democratic and totalitarian states, but rather as “constitutional-pluralist” and “monopolistic” (i.e., one-party) political regimes. The chapter on the breakup of the Fourth Republic appears as an example of the breakdown—or for Aron, the “corruption”—of constitutional-pluralist regimes. His description of what this breakdown looked like is interesting not only in itself, but also because of the allusions he makes to American politics that appear strangely relevant today.


Aron makes a point to insist that the crisis of the Fourth Republic in 1958 was not an inherent outcome of the constitution, as many contemporaries were convinced. Much less was it a crisis stemming from some inherent quality of France and its post-revolutionary political culture; revealing his longstanding fascination for Marx, Aron is convinced that though such explanations might be tempting, they are “unsatisfying, because we would like an explanation that gives us the means to change the world.” For Aron, the explanation for the crisis is the simplest one: the Algerian war. The obsession with the constitution, he writes, is merely “a manner either to forget the problem to be resolved, or to search for an essentially different government capable of resolving it.”


None of this is meant to deny that this was a real political crisis. Aron only sought to resist the conclusion that the collapse of the regime was an inevitable result of underlying tendencies, preferring to describe the more contingent set of circumstances that contributed to making the Algerian conflict a political crisis for the héxagone. One of the main features of the Fourth Republic’s corruption he details are the presence of parties essentially hostile to the regime (parties qui ne jouent pas le jeu), and the instability of governments largely due to particularities of French party politics. These two features go together, since the prominence of these “revolutionary” parties puts together governments made up of coalition partners who detest one another, and whose only feature is that they are loyal to the constitution. In addition, French parties differ widely in their degree of discipline—communists and socialists toeing the line while the Parti radical and the independents take pride in their lack of party cohesion. The mix of disciplined and undisciplined parties, Aron argues, makes it extremely difficult to form coalitions that live up to their expectations. And the instability of governments during a civil war quickly created the widespread impression that the regime itself was impotent—the Fourth Republic was corrupted, he wrote, if nothing else parce que tout le monde affirme qu’il l’est.


Aron compares this unstable French party system to the American parties during the presidential nomination process, where different factions within each party form to support different candidates only to dissolve at the first opportunity to support another—no coalition is stable, and many are incoherent. But whereas this state of affairs only appears every four years, and disappears once the nominees are chosen and the elections held, Aron believes that this was a more or less permanent state of affairs in France. It’s striking today to read this comparison in reverse, since American politics now exhibits a number of these features Aron associated with the “corruption” of the Fourth Republic in its dying days. The turmoil of the presidential nomination process is now arguably not a once-in-four-years affair in a political atmosphere that is often described as a permanent campaign. In addition, America’s two-party system is often “heterogenous” with respect to party discipline: Republicans typically vote in unison with the longstanding aims of the conservative movement (with occasional and often highly opportunistic exceptions such as the late John McCain), while Democratic lawmakers tend to value the lack of discipline Aron rightly saw as essential to a system that is made to run on “pragmatic” party compromise. This distinction is indicative of a broader divergence, in which Republicans from Gingrich to McConnell have steadily come to disregard what are now referred to as the “norms” of the American system of government—earning themselves Gorsuch’s Supreme Court seat among other things in the process—while Democrats continue to profess their loyalty to these norms. Seen in this light, the GOP may well be what Aron called, in a narrow sense, a “revolutionary” party indifferent to or hostile to the regime (or at least its implicit structures). There is also a corresponding “revolutionary” movement on the left wing of the Democratic Party that wants to abandon this often moralistic commitment to “norms” and adopt a strategy that can compete with that of the right.


Is the American system “corrupt” like the Fourth Republic circa 1958? Are we headed towards the sort of crisis that will lead to, as Grey Anderson puts it, a coup d’Etat led by a strongman president? Aron’s “probabilistic” mode of analysis guards against overly catastrophic projections. Though recent years of American politics have clearly demonstrated the weaknesses of a constitutional system many long assumed to be the envy of the world, there is nothing—for now—that comes anywhere close to putting the kind of stress on our institutions as the Algerian civil war (by now it should be more than clear that America’s endless commitments in the War on Terror are a completely different ballgame). And despite the recurrent hopes on both left and right that the election of Donald Trump would spur major political change, he is neither the crisis nor the savior come to end it. Our “corruption” looks posed to drag on.


Photo Credit: Jack Downey via United States Office of War Information, Crowds of French patriots line the Champs Elysees, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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