This is a guest post by Nicolas Boring who has previously written for In Custodia Legis on a variety of topics including The Protection of Champagne Wine, FALQs: Freedom of Speech in France, How Sunday Came to be a Day of Rest in France, Napoleon Bonaparte and Mining Rights in France, French Law – Global Legal Collection Highlights, and co-collaborated on the post, Does the Haitian Criminal Code Outlaw Making Zombies.
France just elected a new President of the Republic and, naturally, this has led to many discussions about the French presidency. It had me thinking back to some of the things I learned in my constitutional law class when I was a young university student in France in the mid- to late-1990s. One little story that really stuck in my mind was an interesting historical explanation behind the length of the presidential term.
Nowadays, French presidents are elected for terms of five years (Constitution, art. 6). This term length was established by a constitutional referendum that was held in 2000 (Référendum sur le quinquennat [Referendum on the Five-Year Term]). Before that, however, the French presidential term was seven years. This term was specified in the original version of the 1958 Constitution, which is the current constitution of France, although it has been amended numerous times since 1958. But the seven year term actually dates back to the Loi du 20 novembre 1873.
When the 1873 law was enacted, France was going through a political and social crisis following its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of Napoleon III. A yearning for stability and security, and probably also a nostalgia for the past, led the French to elect a Monarchist majority to Parliament. But the Monarchists were split between two factions: the so-called “Legitimists,” who favored a return to the Ancien Régime and the senior line of the Bourbon dynasty, and the somewhat more modern “Orléanists,” who supported a junior branch of the Bourbon dynasty represented by the descendant of Louis Philippe (who was king of France from 1830 to 1848, but who was known before that as the Duke of Orléans).
The two factions came to a compromise: the childless Count of Chambord, legitimate heir to the throne according to the Legitimists, would become king of France, but upon his death, the throne would go to the Count of Paris, Louis-Philippe’s descendant. The problem was that the Count of Chambord insisted, as a condition for his accession to the throne, that the French flag be changed to the ancient Bourbon banner, which was white with golden “fleurs de lys.” Yet the French population – including a large proportion of Monarchist supporters – had by then thoroughly adopted the tri-color flag (blue, white and red) under which so many French men had fought and died since the Revolution. Changing the French flag was simply not an option. I remember that my old constitutional law professor said that the Count of Chambord probably did not actually want to rule France, and therefore came up with this pretext as a way to make himself an unacceptable candidate for the throne. I don’t know if there is historical evidence for this or if this was just speculation on the part of my professor, but it certainly seems like a good explanation!
In any case, the Monarchists had to buy more time, so that the Count of Chambord might either change his mind, or simply die. The Monarchist-led Parliament therefore passed the Law of November 20, 1873, which “temporarily” made Marshal Mac-Mahon (himself a Monarchist supporter) the head of the executive for a term of seven years.
Unfortunately for the Monarchists, the Count of Chambord neither changed his mind nor passed away during those seven years. The French people, however, did change. The Monarchists were thoroughly defeated in the Parliamentary elections of 1877, never to recover. The French had decided, once and for all, that they wanted France to be a republic and not a monarchy. But the seven year term for the Presidency remained, probably more by default than any other reason. The French government website Vie-Publique.fr has an interesting page on the seven year term (called “Septennat” in French), which also discusses how views of the presidential term evolved over time.
Interestingly, the idea of a seven-year term is not completely dead in France. Indeed, a number of leaders from all sides of the political spectrum have expressed support for a non-renewable seven year term which would, in their view, allow a president to govern with an eye to the long term.