The current Constitution of France was adopted on 4 October 1958. It is typically called the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, and replaced that of the Fourth Republic dating from 1946. Charles de Gaulle was the main driving force in introducing the new constitution and inaugurating the Fifth Republic, while the text was drafted by Michel Debré. Since then the constitution has been amended twenty-four times, most recently in 2008.
The preamble of the constitution recalls the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen from 1789 and establishes France as a secular and democratic country, deriving its sovereignty from the people.
It provides for the election of the President and the Parliament, the selection of the Government, and the powers of each and the relations between them. It ensures judicial authority and creates a High Court (a never convened court for judging the President), a Constitutional Council, and an Economic and Social Council. It was designed to create a politically strong President.
It enables the ratification of international treaties and those associated with the European Union. It is unclear whether the wording (especially the reserves of reciprocity) is compatible with European Union law.
The Constitution also sets out methods for its own amendment either by referendum or through a Parliamentary process with Presidential consent. The normal procedure of constitutional amendment is as follows: the amendment must be adopted in identical terms by both houses of Parliament, then must be either adopted by a simple majority in a referendum, or by 3/5 of a joint session of both houses of Parliament (the French Congress) (article 89). However, president Charles de Gaulle bypassed the legislative procedure in 1962 and directly sent a constitutional amendment to a referendum (article 11), which was adopted. This was highly controversial at the time; however, the Constitutional Council ruled that since a referendum expressed the will of the sovereign people, the amendment was adopted.
On 21 July 2008, Parliament passed constitutional reforms championed by President Nicolas Sarkozy by a margin of two votes. These changes, if finalized, introduce a consecutive two-term limit for the presidency, give parliament a veto over some presidential appointments, end government control over parliament's committee system, allow parliament to set its own agenda, allow the president to address parliament in-session, and end the president's right of collective pardon. (See French constitutional law of 23 July 2008)
Prior to 1971, though executive, administrative and judicial decisions had to comply with the general principles of law (jurisprudence derived from law and the practice of law in general), there were no such restrictions on legislation. It was assumed that unelected judges and other appointees should not be able to overrule laws voted for by the directly elected French parliament.
In 1971, a landmark decision by the Constitutional Council (71-44DC) cited the preamble of the Constitution and its references to the principles laid in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as a reason for rejecting a law that, according to the Council, violated one of these principles. Since then, it is assumed that the "constitutional block" includes not only the Constitution, but also the other texts referred to in its preamble:The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789
The preamble of the Constitution of 1946 (which adds a number of "social rights", as well as the equality of males and females)
The Charter for the Environment of 2004
Since then, the possibility of sending laws before the Council has been extended. In practice, the political opposition sends all controversial laws before it.
The Constitution defines in Article 89 the rules for amending itself. First, a constitutional bill must be approved by both houses of Parliament. Then, the bill must be approved by the Congress, a special joint session of both houses; alternatively, the bill can be submitted to a referendum.
In 1962, president Charles de Gaulle controversially submitted a bill to a referendum through another procedure defined at article 11 of the Constitution, a procedure which allows the President to hold a referendum without the consent of Parliament – see French presidential election referendum, 1962. This permitted the establishment of a popularly elected presidency, that would otherwise have been vetoed by the Parliament.
Article 11 was used for constitutional changes for the second and last time in 1969, but the "No" prevailed, causing Charles de Gaulle to resign from the presidency.
France has had numerous past constitutions.The ancien régime was an absolute monarchy and lacked a formal constitution; the régime essentially relied on custom.
The Revolutionary Era saw a number of constitutions:
The Constitution of 1791, adopted 3 September 1791, established the Kingdom of the French, a constitutional monarchy, and the Legislative Assembly
The Girondin constitutional project in process of being adopted before the coup that led to the Montagnard faction being in control
The Constitution of 1793, ratified 24 June 1793, was ratified but never applied due to the suspension of all ordinary legality 10 October 1793 (under the French First Republic)
The Constitution of the Year III, adopted 22 August 1795, established the Directory
The Constitution of the Year VIII, adopted 24 December 1799, established the Consulate
The Constitution of the Year X, adopted 1 August 1802, established the Consulate for Life
The Constitution of the Year XII, adopted 18 May 1804, established the First French Empire
Following the restoration of the Monarchy
The Charter of 1814, adopted 4 June 1814, established the Bourbon Restoration
The Charter of 1815, adopted 22 April 1815, was used during the Hundred Days
The Charter of 1830, adopted 14 August 1830, established the July Monarchy
The French Constitution of 1848, adopted 4 November 1848, established the French Second Republic
The French Constitution of 1852, adopted 14 January 1852, established the French Second Empire
The French Constitutional Laws of 1875 of the French Third Republic, 24 and 25 February, and 16 July 1875
The French Constitutional Law of 1940, adopted 10 July 1940, established Vichy France
The French Constitutional Law of 1945, adopted 1945, organized the Provisional Government of the French Republic
The French Constitution of 1946, adopted 27 October 1946, established the French Fourth Republic
The French Constitution of 1958, adopted 4 October 1958, established the French Fifth Republic, current Constitution in force