1946-58 Fourth Republic

Allison Howells


Photo: Tyne Cot Cemetery; West-Vlaanderen, Belgium 2014

The Fourth Republic was a transitional period, notably marked for France’s economic and social growth after subjection to two major wars. World War II resulted in extreme material loss, with the majority of infrastructure and cities destroyed from fighting and bombing. The Third Republic collapsed in 1940 when Germany invaded Belgium through the Ardennes—a route that was disregarded as impossible. France’s defeat forced Third Republic leaders to comply with Hitler’s terms. France signed the Second Armistice at Compeigne Forest, establishing German-occupied zones in Northern and Western France. The Third Republic’s weakened structure made France ever more vulnerable to growing German power. France was liberated from German occupation in 1944, but reinforcing and rebuilding the broken post-war political system marked a new era: the Fourth Republic.

Following France’s liberation in 1944, Charles de Gaulle led the Provisional Government of the French Republic during negations for a new constitution. De Gaulle argued to return to the Third Republic; however, De Gaulle resigned when a Parliament system was established in the new constitution. The new parliamentary system was characterized by a weak central government with most of the control given to coalitions. This bicameral form of government was comprised of a weak executive order and cabinet instability. The President of the Republic was mainly a symbolic role, as the executive power rested in the hands of the President of the Council, or the Prime Minister. The National Assembly, the lower chamber, was given full political power. However, the political party system also complicated the organization of policymaking; conflicting interests of competing coalitions proved difficult when making decisions. The proportional representation consequently pushed Gaullists and Communists to the side, turning the power to coalitions led by Socialists, Radicals, and Christian Democrats. The regime produced ministerial instability, weakening the government’s hold on its colonies. However despite structural problems, the Fourth Republic also fostered major economic and social growth.

During the nation’s recovery period, France experienced a major population growth period known as the “baby boom”. The American Marshall Aid contributed to some of France’s most dire needs. The German occupation during the war had exploited the French economy. France took major steps to nationalize key sectors of the economy, as well as establish the Social Security system. The social institutions defined in the Fourth Republic were the political base of the social programs that are prominent today. It was during this time that France and other European nations began forming modern international relations and reestablishing a global market.

The European Coal and Steel Community was first proposed by French Foreign minister, Robert Schuman, and the French economic theorist, Jean Monnet. The creation of a common market for coal and steel presented a new alliance to prevent future wars between France and Germany. Formally recognized in 1951, the ECSC created a joint market between Italy, West Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The European Coal and Steel Community established the foundation for the later European Economic Community, and eventually the European Union. Although the economic growth and social programs proved successful, the political organization of France created many problems–ultimately leading to the collapse of the French colonial empire.

The Fourth Republic faced the Algiers Crisis of 1958 and other similar decolonization revolts in the French colonies. Prime Minister, Pierre Mendes France, was a radical party leader who worked with the Socialist and Communist parties to end the war in Indochina. Despite the French desire to keep Indochina out of Communist hands, Mendes France made a deal to remove the French military from Indochina. He continued the process of decolonization in Tunis and Morocco. Algeria was unique from other French zones: Algeria was considered part of the Fourth Republic and sent representatives to the French parliament. The Algerian War of Independence was deemed not only as a separatist movement, but as a civil war between French Algeria loyalists who wanted to stay with France and the Algerian nationalists. The party politics supported the French military in opposition to the rebellions against the French government in Algiers. The collapse of the Fourth Republic was greatly caused by the challenges from the war in Algeria and the political system. General Charles de Gaulle, who had retired from politics, became Prime Minister in 1958. De Gaulle terminated the Fourth Republic and a new constitution established the French Fifth Republic that same year.

The Fourth Republic marked an era of transition and growth for France. Post-World War II left France in political chaos from previous German occupation. Left with a damaged economy, the French government sought emergency measures and nationalised major economic sectors. The baby boom brought major population growth and established the foundations of many modern social programs. However, the political organization proved problematic—the National Assembly held all executive powers while the President was only a consultant. This weakened central government consequently led to major political instability. The coalition powers were too loosely organised for efficient policymaking.  The conflicting interests of political parties and the new focus for economic recovery bought the French colonial empire to an end.  After the Fourth Republic collapsed during the war with Algeria, Charles de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic in 1958. Despite the Fourth Republic’s failed parliamentary system, the regrowth period following World War II had established major economic and political ties between European states that eventually became known as the modern European Union.