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The Fifth French Republic, the creation of General de Gaulle, is 50 years old. Of the many regimes since the Revolution of 1789 only the Third Republic (1871–1940) enjoyed a longer life. Nicolas Sarkozy is its sixth President, only four years older than the Republic itself, the first of its leaders to be free of the divisive wartime memories and the crisis that led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic and gave birth to the Fifth. This freedom represents Sarkozy’s opportunity.

The Fifth Republic was born in anxiety and fear. De Gaulle was recalled to power as “the most illustrious of Frenchmen” because the Fourth Republic (1946–58) – the “regime of the parties” – was on the point of collapse, threatened by insurrection in Algeria and the prospect of a military coup.

When, in the troubled days before de Gaulle resumed office, the President of the National Assembly, André Le Troquer, spoke of his fear that the General would establish a dictatorship, de Gaulle replied: “Well, if parliament follows you, I shall have no alternative but to let you have it out with the paratroops, while I go back into retirement and shut myself up with my grief.” Parliament knuckled under. De Gaulle became the last Prime Minister of the Fourth Republic and was granted the authority to devise a new constitution.

In 1940 de Gaulle had been a rebel. Now he was a ruler, with greater authority than he had been granted in 1944–46. Yet there were resemblances between the manner in which the Vichy state against which he had rebelled, and which had condemned him to death, had come into being and that in which he now returned to power. And there were also resemblances between Vichy itself and his Fifth Republic, closer resemblances than he cared to recognise. In 1940 as in 1958, the Republic in crisis turned to a strong man as the saviour of France.

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