Nearly 50 years after the creation of the Fifth Republic by General Charles de Gaulle, Nicolas Sarkozy wants to change France’s fundamental institutions. An expert council will send him its proposals by November 1.Whereas British democracy is deeply rooted despite its supposedly “unwritten” constitution, and the US constitution has been amended only 26 times since 1787, France has redrafted its constitution 15 times since 1789. Only the Third Republic (1875-1940) lasted longer than the current Fifth Republic.Established quickly in 1958 by de Gaulle in the midst of the Algerian crisis, the institutions of the Fifth Republic came under fire from the very first day. The antagonism that much of the left felt toward the Fifth Republic, which was tailored to fit de Gaulle’s outsized figure, faded only in 1981, when François Mitterrand, one of de Gaulle’s most vocal opponents, benefited from the power vested in the presidency.Since then, a consensus has emerged in favour of the 1958 constitutional structure, because it has provided France with the strong executive it had always lacked. De Gaulle’s constitution has also proved flexible enough to allow France to overcome several crises — Algeria, May 1968, de Gaulle’s resignation, changes of government from right to left, and antagonism between left-wing presidents and right-wing prime ministers or vice-versa (“la cohabitation”), as occurred in 1986, 1993, and 1997.But, despite a half-century of political stability, there is growing criticism of the Fifth Republic’s institutional arrangements. Some blame the hybrid nature of de Gaulle’s system for France’s seeming political paralysis. Neither presidential (the prime minister is accountable to the National Assembly, whereas there is no accountability in a presidential regime) nor parliamentary (the president is elected by direct suffrage and has significant power), the system has seen increasing periods of “cohabitation,” which has generally proven inefficient.Others believe that France’s current institutions are the main, if not the only, cause of an emerging democratic crisis. Distrust of politicians is mounting, manifested in weak electoral turnout (except for the last presidential election), protest votes for extremist parties, and the state’s inability to reform itself. All of these negative trends were symbolised by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s success in reaching the second round of the 2002 presidential election.Since the Fifth Republic was established, both French society and the world have undergone huge changes, with important consequences for the way the country is ruled. Globalisation has reduced the state’s freedom of action, and the European Union has gained in prominence.Does this mean that a Sixth Republic is inevitable? As the president is already elected directly, some critics recommend a pure presidential regime, as in the United States. Others support moving toward a pure parliamentary regime in the manner of the United Kingdom.But a presidential regime runs the risk of a stalemate between the executive and the legislature, and a pure parliamentary regime, such as existed in the Third Republic, has a track of failure in France. Nor does France seem ready to endorse a first-past-the-post electoral system, which gives governments strong parliamentary majorities, as in the UK.Sarkozy seems to favour renovating the Fifth Republic. He likes the current system’s strong presidential orientation, particularly since the presidential term was reduced from seven years to five, and is now closely timed to the legislative election cycle.But Sarkozy also favours closer institutional links between the presidency and the parliament. For example, he would like to address the National Assembly once a year, which he is currently barred from doing, given that only the prime minister is accountable to parliament. Similarly, he would like to impose a two-term limit on the president, and to require parliamentary approval of the president’s appointment of certain senior officials.Changes to correct the imbalance between presidential and parliamentary power are, indeed, needed. The legislature should have a greater say in setting the nation’s agenda.To strengthen this new institutional balance, Sarkozy is considering providing the opposition with a formal status, thus turning it into a real alternative power, and he wants to review the constitution’s Article 16, which gives excessive power to the president in times of crisis. He is also weighing whether to change the current Constitutional Court into a Supreme Court to which citizens could appeal under some conditions, and whether to waive the president’s authority to preside over the High Council of the Judiciary. Nobody can forecast what will emerge from the expert council Sarkozy has appointed to consider these constitutional changes. The council’s members represent both the majority and the opposition, and thus have very different views on these issues.But, given that most of the public supports the main principles of the Fifth Republic — such as direct election of the president and a strong executive — any rebalancing of France’s political institutions is unlikely to substantially alter the 1958 constitutional structure. Besides, any constitutional change would need to be endorsed by 60% of the ballots in both the National Assembly and the Senate, which makes the search for consensus all the more necessary. —DT-PS Raphaël Hadas-Lebel, author of 101 Words about French Democracy, is a member of the Conseil d’Etat and Professor at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris.