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French Fourth Republic

This essay examines the reasons for the fall of the French Fourth Republic (1945-1958), with a focus on the impact of the French-Algerian war as well as examining the other causes that contributed to the demise of the government such as the French Indo-China War as well as what seemed like the inherent instability of the structure of government and the cabinet in the French Fourth Republic. The research question that the essay would be is to what extent was the French-Algerian War the cause of the fall of the French Fourth Republic?

The time frame of this essay will be the entire length of the French Fourth Republic’s reign in government from 1945, following the end of World War, until 1958, when Charles de Gaulle rose to power and formed the French Fifth Republic. This timeframe also encompasses the start of both the French Algerian War and the French Indo-China War in 1954 and 1946 respectively.

The stand that this essay will be taking is the view that the French Algerian War was the main cause of the fall of the Fourth Republic. While the instability of the cabinet of the Fourth Republic contributed to its fall due to the infighting among the coalitions, characterized by the 24 different governments in its 13 year reign, it was the controversy over French Algerian war and Algerian independence that led to the intervention from the right-wing supporters in the French Army that led to eventual coup that toppled the French Fourth Republic. Word count: 251


The fall of the French Fourth Republic saw the return of General Charles de Gaulle to power for the first time since the end of World War 2, serving as the first President of the French Fifth Republic. His return to power was a result of being voted in by the French National Assembly due to the collapse of the previous French Fourth Republic. [1] 

Prior to the fall of the government, there was a strong resistance movement already building up in French Algeria as the local government sought independence from French rule. This culminated in violence against French forces present in the area by the paramilitary nationalist political party, the National Liberation Front or FLN. The problem of Algerian independence was further compounded by the problem of the pied-noirs, or Algerian-French. Among the European colonizers, France had the largest number of its population in its colonies and thus, this means that there would be an extremely large number of refugees should the indigenous government gain independence; around 1 million French would be displaced compared to the 250,000 Dutch and 15,000 Britons. [2] 

Therefore, there was a split in the French Parliament over the handling of the matter due to the contrasting views possessed within the ruling coalition government. Furthermore, the frequency in which the ruling government was replaced also added to the situation as different coalitions had different mandates regarding Algeria.


Significance of time frame choice

The French Republic was in power from 1945 following the end of World War 2 to its end following the May Crisis in 1958. Its entire government lasted encompassed the entire French Algerian War, which was from 1946-1954, as well as the start as well as the majority of the Algerian War, which started in 1954. Thus, most of the battle-weary troops from the French Indo-China War and World War 2 before that were sent straight into Algeria to fight, causing unhappiness among the men and the generals.

Furthermore, as it came to power following the end of World War 2, the government of the Fourth Republic was placed in charge of rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and economy. But, the governance of the Fourth Republic was marred by economic mismanagement. [3] 

French Algerian War

France did not have an empire since the time of Napoleon III in the 1860’s, an empire which eventually collapsed around 1870. Thus, when Algeria, the oldest and the crown jewel in the 3rd French Empire wanted independence, France was unwilling to relinquish its colony. The response could be attributed back to the 2nd French Empire, when the belief that colonization was a “civilizing mission” to be carried out amidst a mood of what Harrison terms, “chauvinistic expansionism”. [4] 

Conflicts between France and Algeria were nothing new by the 1950s. Since the end of World War 2, the Algerian government had been pushing for independence whereas France had in fact, been trying to keep its empire from crumbling after World War 2. Thus, when Algeria, one of France’s oldest colonies tried to declare independence, the conflict that erupted between them quickly tied up the military forces; soldiers who had been fighting in the jungles of French Indochina were quickly reposted to the desert sands of Algeria to fight in another war.

This pressure on France for Algerian independence culminated in violence against French troops in Algeria by the National Liberation Front and the National Liberation Army in a war characterized by the use of terror and guerilla attacks against civilians on both sides. This resulted in unpopularity for the war among both the French and Algerian civilians and in particular, the French Army. [5] 

The main cause of the dissatisfaction for the government was the poor leadership and wavering resolve to assure a military solution that the generals perceived the armed forces were receiving under the leadership of the Fourth Republic. However, the government was also disturbed by unchecked military action in Algeria and refused to commit more troops, leaving the French Army without the decisive firepower needed to punch through the resistance. [6] Thus generals wished for a strong, authoritarian figure to take control, a figure they saw in Charles de Gaulle [7] , unlike then-current French Prime Minister Pierre Pflimlin, whom the generals perceived as indecisive and by May 1958, the loyalty of the military to the government was seen as doubtful. [8] 

Back in France, dissatisfaction regarding the government’s plan to cede independence to Algeria resulted in a coup being planned by generals of the French Army, Generals Jean Gracieux, Jacques Massau who supported Admiral Auboyneau, Raoul Salan and Edmond Jouhaud to overthrow the existing government and replace it with Charles de Gaulle as the new head of state. The rogue generals then launched paratroopers into Corsica and threatened to do the same in Paris, with an armored division on standby. [9] Thus, the coup, known as the May 1958 crisis in French history, could be seen as the catalyst of the French Fourth Republic being replaced by de Gaulle and the Fifth Republic. Also, the Communist Party was strongly opposed to the war, claiming colonization was imperialist and bourgeoisie. [10] As the communist party was the largest party in the various ruling coalition governments, this greatly weakened the government’s resolve in dealing with the crisis.

In addition, the generals feared that the French government would pull out of Algeria like it did in French Indo-china, thus incurring more damage to French pride as it would portray them losing to their own colonies, the people whom they consider as second-class citizens. Despite the fact that other colonial powers, Britain in particular, were already granting independence to its large colonial empire after World War 2. India, Burma and Pakistan were three such examples of colonies who gained independence after World War 2

Furthermore, the war was unpopular with the civilians. After all, this was the crown jewel in the French Empire with over 1 million French settlers, more than Morocco or Tunisia, and it was seen as vital to maintain what was known as “Algerie française”. [11] This concept of “Algerie française” was, fundamentally, a concept of unity and equality between the colonist and the colony and was popularized in the 1960’s by supporters who wanted to keep Algeria a French colony. However, this concept was far from stable, with the indigenous Muslims being denied political representation. [12] Thus, tension was built between the mainland government and the second generation French-Algerians, not helped by the deliberate targeting of civilians with bombs, a tactic initially utilized by the French and later by the FLN. [13] Furthermore, after widespread reports of the use of torture by the French Army on prisoners-of-war, the reaction in France was one of moral outrage, reducing support for the war even further, with renowned French philosopher and political activist Jean-Paul Satre speaking out against the violence. [14] Finally, the pied-noirs, or French-Algerian citizens, feared for a negotiated peace with the FLN and thus supported the French Army against the Pflimlin government in an act of open defiance. [15] 

In addition, the use of conscription in the war did not help its popularity, similar to the French Indo-China war before that. [16] Therefore, with a lack of support back in the mainland, it reflected poorly in the government’s decision-making capabilities and would cause it to decline in popularity and support. There was also much unhappiness from the pied-noirs, who felt that they were being marginalized as second-class citizens having been forced to repatriate to mainland France and were similar in status as the native Algerians. [17] Therefore, over 1 million French Algerian joined the Organisation de l’armée secrete or OAS, fighting for Algeria to remain under French Rule. [18] They formed a formidable fighting force, capable of engaging the French Army in hit-and-run attacks, similar to what the French faced in Indochina earlier.

Overall, with the French Indo-china war that just took place earlier, it signaled the collapse of the French Empire that the Fourth Republic had struggled to hold together since the end of the war against the tide of decolonization sweeping across the globe.

French Indo-China (Vietnam) War

The French Indo-China War could be perceived as the start of French decolonization around the world. The war began in 1946 and ended in 1954 with France officially pulling its troops out of the country following the Geneva Convention when the French Prime Minister at the time, Pierre Mendès France, agreed to negotiate an armistice with the Viet Minh resistance fighters.

The loss of the French forces to the Viet Minh could be blamed on the unstable governmental structure. Due to the high turnover rate of governments, there was no consistent policy for the Indo-China War. For example, the Radical Party was strongly opposed to any form of French colonialism and when Prime Minister and Radical Party member Mendès France agreed to a ceasefire and withdrawal from Indo-China with the Viet Minh, this was met with opposition from the Nationalists and the Catholics in the French Parliament in particular, the latter who was opposed to the communists.

This war had a great impact on the French civilians, who saw this as the start of the fall of the French empire. Support for the war was severely lacking in mainland France, with the majority of the opposition being driven by the French Communist Party. Attempts to sabotage the war effort were made apparent by such scandals like the Henri Martin affair. Furthermore, the war was extremely costly, costing the government up to US$3million a day. Also, the handling of the war divided the already split cabinet further, with the communists leaving the ruling Tripartite alliance and weakening the cabinet further. The war also had a lasting impact on the morale of the French Army, as it would later compound with the defeat in Algeria. This loss greatly affected the pride of the French Army, still recovering from its losses in World War 2. Eventually, the commanders present in Vietnam were eventually reposted to Algeria to fight in another war against guerillas.

Overall, the loss of Indo-china greatly affected French pride, having been defeated in World War 2 prior to that as well as having been on the “losing side” in the Korean War. Thus, this led the various commanders of the armed forces that they were being marginalised by the French government and demand a change in the head of state.

Unstable structure

Another given factor for the fall of the Fourth Republic was its unstable structure. [19] Essentially, the French Fourth Republic and its government was formed by minority representation, which meant that no single party had a clear majority and had to form coalitions in order to rule. The result of this was that consensus was very difficult to achieve due to each party that made up the coalition having their own agenda. The main parties forming most of the coalitions were the Radical Party, who were strong opponents of French colonization, and the Socialists, who formed a coalition with the Communist Party. Despite the coalitions and alliances, individual parties still pursued their own agendas and often did not cooperate with one another. This was characterized by the members of the French Communist Party. However, as a majority of the parties consisted of ex-French Resistance members, newer politicians often held them in high esteem and were easily influenced by them. [20] 21

The Fourth Republic comprised of about 20 governments led by mixture of political parties in its 13 years in governance and was seen as a direct continuation of the Third Republic, along with all its failures. It had favored a parliamentary style of governance while Charles de Gaulle had in fact favored a presidential style of governance. This disagreement resulted in de Gaulle leaving French politics until his return to power in 1958. In comparison to the pre-World War 2 French Third Republic, the Fourth Republic’s structure of government was essentially the same. [22] Both were parliamentary democracies and formed coalitions with other parties to form the majority needed. Thus, most of these parties were centrist in nature due to compromises to both the extreme right and extreme left. In addition, a majority of these parties consisted of extremely loose groupings of members concentrated around a few notable figures. [23] This often resulted in ineffective hung parliaments due to the shifting alliances. [24] Furthermore, cabinets often relied on an often temporary and conditional parliamentary majority to maintain power. Any divisions in power would often lead to a fall in the cabinet and the fluidity in which the majority often shifted its power, which in turn led to the high turnover rate of cabinets. [25] A point to note is that the electoral coalitions formed were not binding contracts, but merely tactical maneuvers and as such, imposed no obligations among the parties involved to act together on legislature. [26] One notable example was the when Prime Minister Guy Mollet was in office. Despite being a Socialist minister, his government’s campaign in Algeria had in fact contradicted the rhetoric that the Socialist Party was adopting. [27] 

A comparison was made between the structure of government of the French Fourth Republic and the Weimar Republic of Germany by John D. Huber and Cecilia Martinez-Gallardo in the article “Cabinet Instability and the Accumulation of Experience: The French Fourth and Fifth Republics in Comparative Perspective”. The article takes a rather different stand regarding the point that the alleged instability of the Fourth Republic’s government was more apparent than real as the key office holders more or less remained the same while the cabinets around it reformed over and over again. [28] Thus, this instability is instead attributed to individual members of the cabinet, rather than the entire cabinet as a whole and that the individual accumulation of experience by the ministers served to provide a degree of stability to the cabinet. [29] 

The above point is further endorsed by Roy Macridis in the article “Cabinet Instability in the Fourth Republic (1946-1951)”. In the article, Macridis states that whenever a new cabinet was installed, very rarely was there a complete turnover in personnel, thus ensuring a high rate of continuation between successive cabinets and ministries despite the fact that the average cabinet lasted around six and a half months in the Fourth Republic. [30] 31

However, it is also noted that despite the relative stability of the individual ministries, the cabinets under the Fourth Republic were still lacking any cohesive central decision-making process. In fact, due to the coalition structure, the various ministerial posts were distributed among the various political parties, namely the Socialists, the Radicals and the MRP (Popular Republican Movement), in accordance to how the cabinet was proportioned at the time. Thus for example, the parliamentary secretaries for the 3 different wings of the military were always divided between the 3 main political parties. [32] 

A point to note is that the Fourth Republic was not popular with voters, with around one in two voters challenging the ability of the government. By 1951, was government was described as an “addled Parliament” and “petering out in obscure intrigues over electoral law”. [33] This lack of support explains why the French people were willing to embrace a change in the head of state so quickly. This was also due to their failure to find adequate solutions to issues like unemployment, inflation and more importantly, the Algerian situation. [34] 


Firstly, the fall of the French Fourth Republic has been attributed to the inherent instability of the cabinets of ministers. With such a high turnover rate of cabinets, it is easy to see how the cabinet could be perceived as weak and volatile. This can be seen by the length of some of the tenures in office of some of the Prime Ministers. However in actual fact, most of the key personnel holders held on to their offices despite the changes in leadership, as noted by Roy Macridis. This lends support to the view that the Fourth Republic merely gave off an air of instability and was in fact more steadfast than what it appeared to be.

But, we know that the Army itself was divided among the three political parties due to the coalition structure of government and thus the lack of unity could be seen in the course of the Algerian War, as well as the French Indochina war before that. The Algerian War suffered from a lack of cohesive leadership and battle strategy and this in turn could have led to the pervasive dissatisfaction among the generals, who felt that a change in leadership was necessary to “get the job done”. This in turn, led to the plan to reinstall war hero Charles de Gaulle as the Prime Minister of a new republic with a coup. Thus, this could be seen as the direct cause of the fall of the Fourth Republic as it directly resulted in the Prime Minister Pierre Pflimlin being replaced and the parliamentary democracy system being scrapped.

Furthermore, the French Algerian War also caused the government to lose support of both its citizens in mainland France as well as that of the pied-noirs in Algeria due to the high casualty rate and rumors of torture. The pied-noirs in particular, were demanding independence from France and when their demands were not met by the government, they threw their weight behind the military and took over government offices in protest. Their unhappiness with the government of the Fourth Republic with the war and being forced to seek refuge in Europe was what led to the eventual uprising and support of the OAS. If the pied-noirs had not voiced their unhappiness with the present situation, the government could have just bulldozed their way through the rebels. However, the fact that they still consider Algeria to be the crown jewel of their Empire, coupled by the fact that the pied-noirs numbered nearly 1 million and were still considered by many to be Europeans, this resulted in the previous French government getting replaced by the popular de Gaulle, who seemed to sympathise with the plight of the Algerians.

However, the unpopularity of the French Fourth Republic could have also led to its eventual collapse. The unhappiness of the population due to the three wars that occurred right after World War 2 as well as the apparent capabilities of their government could have led to their poor performance. We have to note that the Fourth Republic collapsed in 1958, but by as early as 1951, as mentioned in the article by D.M.P., nearly half the population expressed some form of unhappiness with the current government. Thus, this lack of support early on could have contributed to the fall of the Republic as a government who loses support from its people cannot hope to stay in power for long.

Therefore, from the evidence above, we can conclude that the while the French Fourth Republic did suffer from some significant flaws that severely hampered its ability to govern the nation, fight multiple wars as well as manage an empire, the Algerian war did in fact drive the already split cabinet even further apart as the multiple parties in charge could not agree to one common agenda on how the Algerian War should be fought out. This in turn, directly affected the outcome of the war. Thus, the decision made by the rogue generals to implement their coup was swayed by the way the French military was locked in a stalemate with the Algerian guerillas.

Presumably, if France was winning in Algeria, then the generals would not have any motive to seek a change in government. However, their coup could have been motivated by dissatisfaction with the Fourth Republic and not influenced by the outcome of the Algerian War. In that case, the fall of the government would be blamed on the very reasons why the people were so discontented with the government: its lack of a coherent structure and inability to solve the economic and social problems of France at the time such as unemployment or national debt. Furthermore, with the people of France split regarding the decision over an independent Algeria versus Algerie française, the ineptitude displayed by the cabinet over the Algerian War only confirmed the lack of faith that the people of France had in their government.

Again, the deciding factor in this situation was the Algerian War. The war was the main issue that the people were concerned about. As with other elections, there will always be complaints about jobs, inflation and debt. However, wars are always a major point of contention as the people in a France eventually viewed the Algerian situation as a waste of money and lives. Add that to the widespread rumors of torture which was later proven to be true, it is not unreasonable to claim that the Algerian War was the main cause for the fall of the French Fourth Republic.

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