The Fifth Republic

On June 1, 1958, General Charles de Gaulle became premier of France. The National Assembly granted him extraordinary powers. De Gaulle prepared a new constitution that vested great powers in the president. The French people in a referendum overwhelmingly approved the constitution. De Gaulle was elected president of the Fifth Republic and took office in January, 1959.

De Gaulle's immediate problem was Algeria. French voters approved his plan for Algerian self-determination but it was opposed by French settlers in Algeria and by many army officers there. De Gaulle put down a rebellion of his former supporters, and Algeria became independent in 1962.

De Gaulle, his position strengthened by France's becoming a nuclear power in 1960, demanded a dominant French role in European and world affairs and took steps to achieve that status. He blocked British membership in the European Community, noting that Britain differed from continental European nations by its insular position and economic makeup.

De Gaulle was reelected president in 1965. In 1966, France withdrew its military forces from the NATO command. Also, NATO powers, at de Gaulle's request, began a gradual removal of their military bases from France.

Opposition to de Gaulle's autocratic policies was building up among many groups, however. In 1967 a faction of the National Assembly almost succeeded in stripping him of some of his powers. In 1968 a protest movement of university students against overcrowding and central control of higher education erupted into riots. Workers of Communist unions joined the student demonstrations, then went on a massive strike that paralyzed the nation. The workers eventually were granted wage increases and returned to their jobs. An education reform act gave the universities virtual autonomy.

In 1969 de Gaulle resigned when his proposals for constitutional reform were rejected in a referendum. Georges Pompidou, a former prime minister, was elected president and continued many of de Gaulle's policies. Pompidou died in office in 1974. In the elections that followed, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing of the moderate Independent Republican party was elected president. Giscard took office with the support of the Gaullists, but as president built an independent governing coalition. Although he initiated an austerity program in 1976, inflation rose significantly.

In the 1981 presidential election François Mitterrand, leader of the Socialist party, defeated Giscard d'Estaing. The new government nationalized many banks and industries. Mitterrand was reelected president in 1988. During 1991--92 Edith Cresson served as prime minister, the first woman in French history to hold that office. In elections for the national assembly in 1993, the Socialists and allied parties lost the plurality they had held since 1981. A coalition of conservative parties won an overwhelming victory. In 1995 Mitterrand ended his second term of office. He was the longest-serving president in French history. In presidential elections that year, Jacques Chirac, leader of the conservative Rally for the Republic party, defeated Lionel Jospin of the Socialist party. Chirac was reelected in 2002.

In 1995, after nearly 30 years, France began to reintegrate itself back into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by sending a representative to NATO's military committee and by taking part in meetings of NATO defense ministers. Also that year, proposed cuts in government pensions led to widespread strikes. The strikes lasted more than three weeks and severely disrupted the French economy.

During 1995--96 France came under international criticism for conducting a series of underground nuclear tests in French Polynesia.