Reading Guides

Origins of the French Fifth Republic: A Reading Guide

Grey Anderson

(An earlier version originally published at:

On 13 May 1958, settler riots in Algiers precipitated a seizure of power in the Algerian capital by French army officers. The putschists formed a Committee of Public Safety and demanded the government in Paris be dissolved and replaced by a new one – committed to maintaining French sovereignty in Algeria – under Charles de Gaulle. Over the following weeks, mainland France lived under the threat of civil war. Shaken by a decade of warfare in Indochina and North Africa, parliamentary instability, and international economic pressure, the postwar regime was ill-placed to meet the challenge from Algiers. At the beginning of June 1958, under the barest conditions of formal legality, the basic demand of the colonialist insurgents was met. General de Gaulle returned to assume the premiership and preside over the creation of a new republic. In the four years spanning the terminal crisis of the Fourth Republic in 1958 and the 1962 retreat from Algeria, French politics would be shaped by bitter contestation over the end of empire, the role of the army in politics, and the legitimacy of the new regime. State massacres and an escalating campaign of rightwing terrorist violence punctuated the concluding phase of the Algerian War of Independence.

Today, the French state remains profoundly marked by the turmoil of its founding. An anti-democratic electoral system, authoritarian presidency, and militaristic foreign policy – most visible in the ‘pré carré’ of post-colonial Africa – are among the most visible legacies of the 1958 transition. Debates over immigration and the ‘integration’ of minority populations are carried out in the long shadow cast by the wars of decolonisation. Over the past decade, questions concerning the legacy of French imperialism and the constitutional mechanisms of the Fifth Republic have acquired new urgency. In the twenty-first century, the French armed forces have been continuously engaged in conflicts across Africa and the Middle East, and terrorist attentats at home have occasioned intensified repression. For the first time since 1958, the 2017 presidential election witnessed the establishment parties of both right and centre failing to advance to ballotage. At the same time, the declining legitimacy of capitalist democracy has reawakened wider interest in theories of fascism, Bonapartism, and Caesarism.

Yet the turbulent origins of the modern republic remain to a considerable extent obscured in the literature on the subject, and 1958 itself is conspicuously absent from the periodising schemes that emplot the history of postwar France. Jean Fourastié’s ‘thirty glorious years’, running from the end of the Second World War to the mid-1970s; Jean-François Sirinelli’s ‘vingt décisives’ (1965-1985); Pascal Ory’s ‘between-two-Mays’, which encompasses the decades between 1968 and François Mitterrand’s victory in the 1981 presidential election; and the amorphous ‘’68 years’, seen to extend from the Evian Accords into the 1970s, all testify to a common repression. Jean Vigreux’s recent survey, Croissance et contestations, 1958-1981 (Paris: Seuil, 2018 [2014]), is a rule proving exception.

The astonishing expansion of the French economy in the decades of postwar boom has inspired a roseate image of consensual modernisation, memorably satirised by Luc Boltanski and Pierre Bourdieu in their sottisier, ‘La production de l’idéologie dominante’, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 2:2-3 (1976): 3-73. The essays in Une autre histoire des ‘trente glorieuses’: Modernisation, contestations et pollutions dans la France d’après-guerre (Paris: La Découverte, 2016 [2013]), edited by Céline Pessis, Sezin Topçu, and Christophe Bonneuil, also furnish important correctives to this Épinal image, stressing conflicts and contradictions obscured in the triumphalist portrayal of ‘modernist’ ideologues like Fourastié and reproduced in much historical writing. Philip Nord’s France’s New Deal: From the Thirties to the Postwar Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) supplies a complimentary revision of the supposed break instituted by the end of the Second World War. Richard Kuisel likewise identifies continuities linking the interwar period and Vichy with postwar planning in Capitalism and the State in Modern France: Renovation and Economic Management in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). For a lucid, critical approach to the economic history, inflected by the theories of the Regulation School, see André Gauron’s Histoire économique et sociale de la cinquième république, Tome 1: Le temps des modernistes (Paris: La Découverte / Maspero, 1983).

Vigreux’s Croissance et contestations, which speaks of a ‘Copernican revolution in the relationship between the government, the people, and their elected representatives’ inaugurated in 1958, is the best general introduction to the first decades of the Fifth Republic. For an overview of the historiography and brilliant insight into the mechanisms through which this founding episode came to be repressed, the work of the political scientist Brigitte Gaïti is indispensable, beginning with ‘Les incertitudes des origines: Mai 1958 et la Ve République’, Politix 47 (1999): 27-62. A subsequent article, ‘Les manuels scolaires et la fabrication d’une histoire politique: L’exemple de la IVe République’, Genèses 3:44 (2001): 50-75, takes up the same theme, via a comparison of textbook treatments. Gaïti’s De Gaulle: Prophète de la Cinquième République, 1946-1962 (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1998) provides an in-depth account of the function of ‘de Gaulle myth’ in recasting the collapse of the Fourth Republic, the result of colonialist plotting and military insubordination, as a narrative of inexorable decline reversed by providential leadership.

Although controversy continues to hover over the question of de Gaulle’s role in the May 1958 coup d’état and how much he knew of his supporters’ activities, the basic facts have long been established. René Rémond’s 1958, Le retour de De Gaulle (Brussels: Éditions Complexe, 1998 [1983]), first published more than twenty-five years ago, is an accessible narrative of the events, although its focus on contingency underplays the coordination of Gaullist conspirators. Written in a more polemical spirit, and considerably lengthier, the muckraking journalist Christophe Nick’s Résurrection: Naissance de la Ve République, un coup d’État démocratique (Paris: Fayard, 1998) furnishes a number of new elements implicating de Gaulle in the scheming that brought down the postwar republic. Two edited anniversary volumes summarize the state of scholarship; L’avènement de la Ve République (Paris: Armand Colin, 1999) is particularly useful in its coverage of international reactions to the treize mai, an event for which, as a contributor to a quadragenary colloquium concluded, ‘properly speaking there is no historiography’ (Pierre Girard, ‘Le 13 Mai dans l’historiographie’, in Mai 1958: Le retour du général de Gaulle, ed. Jean-Paul Thomas, Gilles Le Béguec, and Bernard Lachaise (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010), 37).

Whatever the details of its unfolding, the 1958 seizure of power must be understood against the wider backcloth of the end of empire and wars of decolonisation. Martin Thomas’s Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and their Roads from Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) is a valuable overview, enriched by Anglo-French comparison. Sylvie Thénault’s Histoire de la guerre d’indépendance algérienne (Paris: Flammarion, 2012) synthesises a large and expanding literature which continues to focus disproportionately on the French side of a conflict victoriously waged by the Algerian people. Martin Evans provides an up-to-date English-language narrative in Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). On the tactics employed by French forces, notably including the systematic use of torture, Raphaëlle Branche’s La torture et l’armée pendant la guerre d’Algérie, 1954-1962 (Paris: Gallimard, 2016 [2001]) is fundamental.

While the conflict was by different measures a war of colonial repression in Algeria and a civil war in France, it also figured in the planetary context of the Cold War. Matthew Connelly’s innovative study of the international diplomatic initiatives of the National Liberation Front (FLN), A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) underscores the significance of larger East-West and North-South geopolitical dynamics to the emergence of the Fifth Republic. Drawing on new archival sources, Connelly shows how discontent in France over American pressure to recognise the claims of Algerian nationalism – which Washington had come to see as a bulwark against Soviet influence in Africa – exacerbated by French dependence on US and international financial aid, set in motion the events of spring 1958, described by Connelly (following the Anglo-Russian journalist Alexander Werth) as an ‘anti-American revolt’.

Returned to power in 1958 by civilian plotters and fractious officers pledged to the defence of French Algeria, de Gaulle would turn against the colonialist hardliners, gradually edging towards acknowledgement of Algerian independence. The institutional framework under which France continues to be ruled was forged under conditions of emergency government and counterrevolutionary warfare, marked by profound contradictions at the heights of the state.

For a conspectus detailing the political and economic consequences of the war in Algeria on mainland France, Hartmut Elsenhans’s Frankreichs Algerienkrieg, 1954-1962: Entkolonisierungsversuch einer kapitalistischen Metropole zum Zusammenbruch der Kolonialreiche (Munich: Hanser, 1974) – a monumental work conceived in a world-systems framework – remains in many respects unsurpassed.1 The American historian Todd Shepard’s The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006) makes a powerful and counterintuitive argument for the lasting importance of the Algerian war to French thinking about race, identity, and citizenship. Although elements of Shepard’s analysis are open to debate, his dissection of ‘decolonisation’ exposes a central mechanism by which the radical character of the 1958 rupture was effaced in the name of historical inevitability and the ‘meaning of history’. Together with Gaïti’s work, Delphine Dulong’s Moderniser la politique: Aux origines de la Ve République (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1997) throws light on the exploitation of the Algerian crisis by a rising technocratic elite, and the corresponding devaluation of parliamentary expertise. The enshrinement of this dynamic in the 1958 Constitution is well described by Bastien François in Naissance d’une constitution: La Cinquième République, 1958-1962 (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1996).

If myriad forces took part in the crisis of the Fourth Republic, none exercised greater conjunctural influence than the French army. Paul-Marie de La Gorce’s The French Army: A Military-Political History, trans. Kenneth Douglas (New York: George Braziller, 1963),2 a contemporary journalistic production, can still be consulted with profit on the mid-century crisis of the armed forces, fractured by the ideological tremors of the 1940 ‘debacle’ and subsequent liberation, and exhausted by a decade of colonial hostilities. André Vaïsse’s history of the failed 1961 Algiers putsch, Comment de Gaulle fit échouer le putsch d’Alger (Brussels: André Versaille, 2011 [1983]), provides insight into the rash of praetorian insubordination triggered by de Gaulle’s halting retreat from Algeria. The wars in Southeast Asia and North Africa gave rise to an efflorescence of strategic innovation within the French military, coalescing in a doctrine of ‘revolutionary warfare’ that would enjoy international fame. In L’Ennemi intérieur: La généalogie coloniale et militaire de l’ordre sécuritaire dans la France contemporaine (Paris: La Découverte, 2011), Mathieu Rigouste paints a vivid picture of this current of thought, and explores the ways in which techniques of colonial counterinsurgency have continued to inform domestic policing and security policy as well as military strategy. Marie-Monique Robin’s Escadrons de la mort, l’école française (Paris: La Découverte, 2008), the basis for a Canal+ documentary, covers some of the same territory, documenting the global circulation of French methods to Latin American dictatorships, post-colonial African regimes, and Pentagon seminar rooms.

Both the fortunes of military interventionism and the Fifth Republic’s cultivation of the arms industry are surveyed in Claude Serfati’s Le militaire: Une histoire française (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2017), which draws on the author’s pioneering research on the national military-industrial complex.3 De Gaulle’s foreign policy ambitions, and his hopes of asserting French ‘grandeur’ against the awesome influence of the United States, have generated considerable debate. The consensus view in French diplomatic history, incarnated in Maurice Vaïsse’s monumental La grandeur: Politique étrangère du général Gaulle (Paris: CNRS, 2013 [1998]) and handily summarised by Frédéric Bozo in French Foreign Policy since 1945: An Introduction, trans. Jonathan Hensher (Oxford: Berghahn, 2016 [2012]),[4 has tended to accept the General’s own claim of having taken office with a sweeping vision for national independence and the conviction that the decolonisation of Algeria was a prerequisite. Revisionist scholars have instead argued that de Gaulle had a pragmatic outlook on assuming the presidency, with respect both to Algeria and to Franco-American relations. Connelly’s Diplomatic Revolution proposes a nuanced version of this interpretation, advanced less persuasively in Irwin Wall’s somewhat caricatural France, the United States, and the Algerian War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). The authoritative biographical study is Julian Jackson’s A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle (London: Penguin, 2018).

The early years of the republic also saw the elaboration of the juridical state of exception, and the first application in mainland France of legislation that was most recently invoked in November 2015 and has since been integrated into the constitution. Thénault charts the history of the law in ‘L’état d’urgence, 1955-2005: De l’Algérie coloniale à la France contemporaine: Destin d’une loi’, Le Mouvement Social 218 (2007): 63-78. Vanessa Codaccioni’s timely study of the Cour de sûreté de l’État, a jurisdiction originally created to try those accused of crimes linked to the Secret Army Organisation (OAS), Justice d’exception: L’État face aux crimes politiques et terroristes (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2015) describes another facet of the normalisation of exceptional jurisprudence over the past half century.

Repression of the Fifth Republic’s primal scene is all the more striking in view of the massive, often theoretically rich production of observers at the time. All political forces in France were obliged to respond to the upheaval of 1958; however, this obligation was not equally shared. Though dissidence over Algeria would not be long in coming, the French right by and large greeted de Gaulle’s reappearance at the head of state with relief that the crisis had not yielded a Popular Front government, and hope that the contradictions destabilising the old regime might be resolved. There was little incentive to probe beneath the surface of the new premier’s ecumenical programme. Raymond Aron, a precocious advocate for decolonisation on grounds of economic interest, was an exception; in articles for the Manchester Guardian and the CIA-funded Preuves, the philosopher expressed misgivings over de Gaulle’s dictatorial and Bonapartist tendencies but voiced cautious optimism concerning the outcome of what he did not hesitate to label, in L’Algérie et la République (Paris: Plon, 1958), a ‘coup d’état’. On the left, by contrast, the fall of the Fourth Republic engendered a flurry of contending interpretations and institutional splits, aftereffects of which would be felt long after the consolidation of the new order. For a scholarly synthesis of this fallout, amply documented in militant literature, see Olivier Duhamel’s La gauche et la Ve République (Paris: PUF, 1993).

No formation confronted the need to interpret events more urgently than the French Communist Party (PCF). The only party uniformly opposed to de Gaulle’s seizure of power, the PCF was hobbled by Cold War anti-Communism and strategic disorientation; throughout the 1950s, the signal goal of the leadership under Maurice Thorez was the party’s inclusion in the normal functioning of parliamentary politics, and participation in government – the resulting opportunism, even-handedly appraised in Irwin Wall’s French Communism in the Era of Stalin: The Quest for Unity and Integration, 1945-1962 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983), left the party increasingly vulnerable to dissent on its left as well as counter-mobilisation from the right, aggravated by the dual 1956 shocks of the 20th Congress of the CPSU and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The PCF’s shifting position on Algeria and notorious vote for the ‘special powers’ demanded by Socialist premier Guy Mollet are examined by Alain Ruscio in his Les communistes et l’Algérie: Des origines à la guerre d’indépendance, 1920-1962 (Paris: La Découverte, 2019), a thorough, judicious work that qualifies anathema and official self-justification alike.

Crisis in 1958 catalysed existing divisions. The Communist activation of interwar Popular Front rhetoric, calling for a broad union of the left against the ‘fascist’ threat posed by de Gaulle and his supporters in Algiers, proved a dismal fiasco. The PCF’s legalist strategy contributed to alienating elements of its base while failing to budge the SFIO, even as Mollet’s leadership faced its own opposition from Socialists critical of his revanchist colonialism. In the summer following the May 13, 1958 coup, the PCF line evolved from an initial definition – derived verbatim from interwar Comintern doctrine – of de Gaulle as a fascist or ‘springboard to fascism’ to a more qualified definition of Gaullism as neither fascist nor democratic but rather ‘a regime of personal power’, in the service of big capital. This interpretation, canonically outlined in Henri Claude’s Gaullisme et grand capital (Paris: Éditions Sociales, 1960) did not go uncontested within the party. Anti-Stalinist critics, notably the left dissidents grouped around Jean Poperen’s Tribune du communisme and Gérard Spitzer’s La Voie communiste, home to Trotskyist entryists, proposed a range of competing assessments. United by their objection to official PCF vacillation over Algerian independence (and continued hopes for an entente with Mollet’s SFIO), many ‘oppositionnels’ also questioned the straightforward identification of de Gaulle with Algérie-française ultras. Like the Italian Communist Lucio Magri, who wrote a sophisticated, precocious analysis in the winter of 1958 (‘Ipotesi sulla dinamica del gollismo’, Nuovi argomenti 35-36 (November 1958 – February 1959): 1-43), some PCF intellectuals looked to theories of Bonapartism and Caesarism, rather than the German and Italian dictatorships, to explain the functioning of de Gaulle’s presidency. The General, on this account, was not a mere pawn of ‘the most reactionary and colonialist elements of big capital’ but a mediating figure, summoned to superintend the general interest of capital over and above the squabbling of different class fractions within the French bourgeoisie.

Outside of the PCF, representatives of a new radical left – anatomised by Christoph Kalter in The Discovery of the Third World: Decolonisation and the Rise of the New Left in France, c.1950-1976, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016 [2011]) – propounded similar theses, amplified in the pages of France Observateur, L’Express, Témoignage chrétien, and other organs of non-Communist anticolonial opinion, as well as in the catalogues of engagé publishers Minuit and Maspero. The sociologist Serge Mallet’s Le gaullisme et la gauche (Paris: Seuil, 1965), reproducing articles earlier published in Les Temps Modernes and elsewhere, is a standout example. Recalling Marx’s caution in The Eighteenth Brumaire not to amalgamate bourgeois politics under an undifferentiated category of ‘reaction’, ‘a night when all cats are grey’, Mallet seconded the ‘Italians’ in the PCF and other heterodox currents in emphasising the contradictions pitting the most advanced fraction of French capital against a backwards rump of colonial landowners, agrarian workers, and shopkeepers and small merchants, strata historically most susceptible to fascist appeals. Petty-bourgeois colons and ‘military Poujadists’ might have brought de Gaulle to power; however, they faced certain disappointment. The Fifth Republic would instead advance the interests of a dynamic, high-tech ‘neo-capitalism’. Strengthened executive power, ‘rationalised’ parliamentarism, and state-led investment in research and development was to prevail, and inconvenient remnants of an earlier phase of development could be discarded.

Debates over the nature and class basis of Gaullist power were not only theoretical. As the Algerian war entered its bloody finale, and the regime found itself entangled in a violent struggle against colonialist settlers and a disobedient army as well as the FLN and leftwing opponents in mainland France. Was de Gaulle’s ‘progressive’ – albeit bourgeois and authoritarian – regime to be supported against the more radical threat posed by pro-Algérie-française dead-enders and putschists? What responsibility did anticolonial militants in France have to aid the cause of nationalist forces in Algeria? The historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, a prominent supporter of the Algerian independence movement, gives a valuable retrospective view of the attendant schisms in Face à la raison d’État: Un historien dans la guerre d’Algérie (Paris: La Découverte, 1989). Jean-Pierre Vernant, a dissenting PCF member at the time and (like Vidal-Naquet) a scholar of Ancient Greece, also testifies edifyingly to the intra-left divisions of the period in his memoirs, Entre mythe et politique (Paris: Seuil, 1996).

Le 14 Juillet, an ephemeral publication founded by the anticolonialist intellectuals Dionys Mascolo and Jean Schuster, can be read as a seismograph of the tremors that shook the far left in the months after May 1958. The journal’s four issues, republished under the editorship of Daniel Dobbels, Francis Marmande, and Michel Surya (Paris: Séguier, 1990), featured a constellation of the Parisian intelligentsia, from grandees of surrealism and the interwar avant-garde to champions of the emerging structuralist vogue in the human sciences. The motto of the journal was refusal: neither critical support for de Gaulle, nor defence of the vanquished Fourth Republic, neither despair nor affirmation, but – in the words of contributor Maurice Blanchot, ‘unconditional refusal’. In 1960, similar rhetoric appeared in the ‘Déclaration sur le droit à l’insoumission dans la guerre d’Algérie’, known as the ‘Manifesto of the 121’, a collective statement authored by Blanchot and Mascolo and published in Vérité-Libre, organ of the FLN support network organised by the philosopher Francis Jeanson. The manifesto was timed to coincide with the trial of members of Jeanson’s network, the transcript of which is reproduced in a volume edited by Marcel Péju, Le procès Jeanson (Paris: La Découverte, 2002). Marie-Pierre Ulloa’s biography, Francis Jeanson: A Dissident Intellectual from the French Resistance to the Algerian War, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007 [2001])5 narrates the proceedings and the ongoing dispute over whether engagement against the war justified ‘betrayal’ of the nation.

The history of Socialisme ou Barbarie, the heterodox Trotskyist organisation and journal created by Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort, is symptomatic of wider discord. While Jean-François Lyotard was involved with the porteurs de valise and wrote sympathetic if critical coverage of the FLN, Castoriadis and others baulked, objecting to the ‘bureaucratic’ composition of the Front. Lyotard’s journalism, included in Political Writings, trans. Bill Readings and Kevin Paul Geiman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993 [1989]),6 has better stood the test of time than his later postmodernist ravings. Jean-Paul Sartre, for whom opposition to the Gaullist coup d’état was among the most intense political engagements of a lifetime, pronounced his ferocious verdict in articles collected in Situations V (Paris: Gallimard, 1964). The Martiniquan revolutionary and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, whose extraordinary critique of colonialism would be posthumously published in 1961 with a preface by Sartre, covered the crisis of the French republic in acerbic dispatches for the FLN paper El Moudjahid, republished in Alienation and Freedom, ed. Jean Khalfa and Robert J.C. Young, trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Bloomsbury, 2018 [2015]).     

The theoretical contributions of Pierre Frank’s Parti communiste international (PCI), product of a 1952 split in the French section of the Trotskyist Fourth International, deserve mention as well. Frank’s current offered early support for the FLN and animated entryist initiatives within the PCF, a history documented in Sylvain Pattieu’s Les camarades des frères: trotskistes et libertaires dans la guerre d’Algérie (Paris: Syllepse, 2002). Quatrième Internationale, the official PCI organ, published penetrating commentary on the 1958 crisis and its sequellae – Frank consistently hewed to a Bonapartist interpretation of the new regime, while underscoring the tenuous boundary separating de Gaulle’s state from fascist dictatorship. Jean-Marie Brohm et al., Le gaullisme, et après? État fort et fascisation (Paris: Maspero, 1974) collects these contemporary writings together with attempts on the part of the PCI (reborn in 1974 as the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire) to theorise Gaullist power in the years leading up to and immediately following the eruption of 1968.

For the government in Paris, the last years of the Algerian war called for an amphibolous strategy: intense violence directed against the FLN and its supporters in France served as assurance against the menace posed by hardliners within the state and its security apparatuses. Jim House and Neil MacMaster’s Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) details a long-obscured episode in this process, the murder by the police of more than a hundred Algerians in Paris in September and October 1961. As House and MacMaster show, the slaughter of autumn 1961 was not an anomalous excess but the outcome of a meticulously theorised militarisation of the forces of order, infused – under the supervision of Paris Prefect of Police Maurice Papon – with the principles of colonial counterinsurgency and the ideological framework of revolutionary warfare doctrine. The following February, nine CGT militants were killed during the police assault on a protest against the OAS. Alain Dewerpe’s magisterial inquiry into this event, Charonne, 8 février 1962: Anthropologie historique d’un massacre d’État (Paris: Gallimard, 2006), focuses less on the colonial sources of repression than on the ‘habitus du pouvoir’ characteristic of the Gaullist state, and the desire to throw a sop to restive soldiers and police by cracking down on the left – a strategy, in Dewerpe’s words, of playing off ‘massacre against putsch’.

Algerian independence, proceeding from the March 1962 Evian Accords, and the October referendum on the direct election of the French president marked an end to the turbulent consolidation of the Fifth Republic. The fiercely contested referendum campaign inspired a brief resurgence of the anti-fascist themes of May 1958. But this was a swan song. In due course, the PCF itself would be led to revise its position on Gaullism. By the end of 1962, the party leadership had resolved that the regime no longer ‘opened the route to fascism’, but rather had placed personal power in the service of finance and the concentration of capital – this line would be refined throughout the decade, in a growing literature on ‘state monopoly capitalism’, reviewed by Bob Jessop in The Capitalist State: Marxist Theories and Methods (New York: New York University Press, 1982). Of greater theoretical moment, unorthodox Communists and Marxist thinkers outside the party would continue to develop the analyses put forward by the internal dissidents of 1958. Louis Althusser is one celebrated example: his first book, Montesquieu, la politique et l’Histoire (Paris: PUF, 1959), engaged forcefully if indirectly with the polemics surrounding de Gaulle’s Machtergreifung.7 In an imposing series of publications over the first half of the 1960s, Althusser and his students would elaborate reflections on ‘contradiction’ prompted in part by the advent of the Gaullist state into a sweeping refoundation of Marxist theories of history and causality.8

Questions of the autonomy of the political and the relationship between Gaullism, fascism, and Bonapartism went on to constitute a formative matrix of Marxist state theory for years to come. Both the massive wave of strikes and protests of May 1968 and debates the following decade over Eurocommunism and the possibility of a ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ would bear the imprint of the 1958 conjuncture. Nicos Poulantzas’s writings of the 1970s, from Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism, trans. Judith White (London: Verso, 1974 [1970])9 to State, Power, Socialism, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 2014 [1978])10revisit many of the preoccupations awakened by the birth of the Fifth Republic, in the context of a changing international conjuncture.

But if 1958 left a lasting impression on French political thought, the predictions of those who believed the Gaullist regime would remain haunted by its original scene turned out to be unfounded. In retrospect it is startling how quickly the Fifth Republic distanced itself from the circumstances of its conception. Controversies over the fact of executive power – the archetypical source of republican anathema – were to cede to controversies over its form. It would be two decades before the left occupied the Élysée. But, in the interim, it underwent a massive transformation.

François Mitterrand, whose anti-Gaullist diatribe Le Coup d’État permanent (Paris: Plon, 1964) continues to be cited if not read, swiftly discarded his damning critique of the Fifth Republic’s institutions on acceding to the presidency. The first crisis of the new majority, and the government’s first employment of Article 49.3 of the 1958 Constitution, nonetheless retrojected a beam of light onto old décor. Against intransigent opposition from within the Socialist Party, parliament passed legislation in late 1982 reintegrating to the ranks of the reserve eight generals convicted for their involvement in the April 1961 Algiers putsch, among them Raoul Salan, erstwhile figurehead of the May 1958 coup and OAS chieftain. ‘To pardon is not to forget’, Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy reassured the National Assembly. ‘It implies no approval of the acts that resulted in the earlier sentencing. But French society must help appease tensions. It must help stitch up wounds. This is the role of the government.’11

Twenty years earlier, before the tribunal to answer for the crimes of the OAS, Salan and his lawyers – most prominently the Pétainist agitator (and future presidential candidate) Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour – had seized on the trial to stage a symbolic referendum on a regime in whose creation the former commander in chief played such a central role. The transcript of the proceedings, published as Le procès de Raoul Salan (Paris: Albin Michel, 1962), remains an important document for understanding the origins of the Fifth Republic. The German jurist Carl Schmitt, onetime legal theorist of the Third Reich and a keen observer of the trial, captured some ironies of the episode in a set of contemporary lectures that formed the basis for his Theorie des Partisanen: Zwischenbemerkung zum Begriff des Politischen (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1963). Schmitt, for whom the OAS leader was a romantic insurgent doomed to failure in an age of ‘global civil war’, concluded that ‘the case of Salan shows that even a dubious legality is stronger, in a modern state, than any other kind of justice.’ A judgment that intervening years have done little to disprove.


Image “The French Revolution” by tonynetone is licensed under CC BY 2.0


  • 1. Issued in a partially abridged and updated French edition as La guerre d’Algérie, 1954-1962: La transition d’une France à une autre, trans. Vincent Goupy and Gilbert Meynier (Paris: Éditions Publisud, 1999).
  • 2. La République et son armée (Paris: Fayard, 1963).
  • 3. See also Serfati, ‘Imperialism in Context: The Case of France’, Historical Materialism 23:2 (2015), 52-93.
  • 4. La politique étrangère de la France depuis 1945 (Paris: Flammarion, 2012).
  • 5. Francis Jeanson, un intellectuel en dissidence: De la Résistance à la guerre d’Algérie (Paris: Berg International, 2001).
  • 6. La guerre des Algériens: Écrits, 1956-1963 (Paris: Galilée, 1989).
  • 7. English translation in Althusser, Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 2007 [1972]). A chapter on ‘The Myth of the Separation of Powers’ first appeared in the November 1958 issue of Esprit, with an introductory note signaling the contemporary relevance of the subject. See Althusser, “Despote et monarque chez Montesquieu,” Esprit 11 (November 1958): 595-614. As his student Yves Duroux would recall, the book – published the following year by the Presses universitaires de France – was Althusser’s ‘response to 13 May 1958.’ Cited in François Ewald, ‘Elèves d’Althusser’, Le Magazine littéraire 304 (November 1992): 46-48, 47.
  • 8. For further explicit consideration of de Gaulle and the Bonapartist ‘solution’, see Althusser’s posthumously published On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (London: Verso, 2014 [1995]).
  • 9. Fascisme et dictature: La IIIe Internationale face au fascisme (Paris: Maspero, 1970).
  • 10. L’État, le pouvoir, et le socialisme (Paris: PUF, 1978).
  • 11. See Jean Guisnel, Les généraux: Enquête sur le pouvoir militaire en France (Paris: La Découverte, 1990), 66-78.