Fol­low the trail of France’s di­rectly elected pres­i­dents with San­dra Hau­rant

France - - Contents -

Trace the for­tunes of France’s pres­i­dents and visit build­ings that made them.

France has come a long way since its first elected leader, LouisNapoléon Bon­a­parte, later known as Napoléon III, be­came the first pres­i­dent of the coun­try in 1848. The na­tion’s tur­bu­lent po­lit­i­cal his­tory is fac­ing new sur­prises in the 2017 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, but France is no stranger to up­heaval; it has seen its po­lit­i­cal sys­tems evolve and re­form time and again.

France is now in its Fifth Repub­lic, a sys­tem of govern­ment estab­lished by Charles de Gaulle on 4 Oc­to­ber 1958. De Gaulle be­came its first pres­i­dent that De­cem­ber and had an even­tful decade in power, in­clud­ing the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a change to the con­sti­tu­tion that, in 1965, led to him be­com­ing the first di­rectly elected French pres­i­dent since 1848.

A na­tion­al­is­tic leader, his aim was to pull the coun­try up by the boot straps eco­nom­i­cally speak­ing, while also in­creas­ing the strength of the mil­i­tary. In May 1968, vi­o­lent demon­stra­tions by univer­sity stu­dents and a paralysing gen­eral strike caused tur­moil, but de Gaulle brought the cri­sis to an end by call­ing, and win­ning, leg­isla­tive elec­tions the fol­low­ing month. He re­signed in April 1969 af­ter los­ing a ref­er­en­dum, and was re­placed by in­terim leader Alain Po­her, who was suc­ceeded in June 1969 by Ge­orges Pom­pi­dou, for­merly prime min­is­ter un­der de Gaulle.

Pom­pi­dou’s legacy is seen mainly as one of mod­erni­sa­tion, with sweep­ing changes to in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing lay­ing the foun­da­tions for high-speed train lines and push­ing a nu­clear en­ergy pro­gramme aimed at mak­ing France as self-suf­fi­cient as pos­si­ble. He set out to bring Paris up to date, too, no­tably with the con­struc­tion of the Cen­tre Beaubourg, today called the Cen­tre Ge­orges Pom­pi­dou. Built to pro­vide a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary cul­tural cen­tre, in­clud­ing the Na­tional Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, it is also con­sid­ered a work of art in it­self due to the ground­break­ing in­side-out ar­chi­tec­ture.

When Pom­pi­dou died in of­fice in April 1974, the va­cant po­si­tion was filled once again by Alain Po­her, un­til the elec­tion, in May, of the cen­trist Valéry Gis­card d’es­taing. He con­tin­ued modernising the coun­try, and his legacy in­cludes the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the TGV project. Since leav­ing of­fice, Gis­card d’es­taing, at 91 the old­est-sur­viv­ing French pres­i­dent, has been ad­mit­ted to the Académie française and writ­ten pop­u­lar nov­els. These in­clude La Princesse et le Prési­dent, which fuelled ru­mours of a ro­man­tic link be­tween him and Diana, Princess of Wales.

Wide-reach­ing re­forms

Gis­card d’es­taing was suc­ceeded in 1981 by an­other pres­i­dent with a pas­sion for the writ­ten word (and in­deed a rep­u­ta­tion for ro­man­tic li­aisons). François Mit­ter­rand led the Repub­lic from 1981 to 1995, the long­est time in of­fice of any French pres­i­dent. As France’s first so­cial­ist leader, Mit­ter­rand over­saw a num­ber of wide-reach­ing re­forms, in­clud­ing a na­tion­al­i­sa­tion pro­gramme. Today, his ex­tra-mar­i­tal re­la­tion­ships con­tinue to at­tract al­most as much at­ten­tion as his poli­cies; a col­lec­tion of Mit­ter­rand’s let­ters to his lover Anne Pin­geot was pub­lished in 2016, reignit­ing in­ter­est in his hid­den side.

Jac­ques Chirac fol­lowed Mit­ter­rand into the Élysée Palace in 1995 and stayed in of­fice un­til 2007, suc­cess­fully fight­ing off the Front Na­tional’s Jean-marie Le Pen in 2002, when the far-right leader shocked France, and in­deed the world, by reach­ing the sec­ond round of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.

Chirac went on to sup­port his suc­ces­sor, Ni­co­las Sarkozy, who was elected in 2007 and served in of­fice un­til 2012. His term cov­ered the 2008 eco­nomic cri­sis, and he brought in con­tro­ver­sial so­cial re­forms in 2010, against a back­drop of strikes, when he in­creased the re­tire­ment age from 60 to 62. Sarkozy’s pres­i­dency was associated with a pen­chant for the finer things, and his mar­riage to the glam­orous Carla Bruni gave the cou­ple a higher pro­file than pre­vi­ous pres­i­den­tial part­ner­ships.

When François Hol­lande beat Sarkozy in 2012, his ev­ery­man per­sona came as quite a change. He was to be un prési­dent nor­mal, a con­trast to the per­ceived ‘bling’ of his pre­de­ces­sor. How­ever, his pres­i­dency be­gan with some un­ex­pected in­sights into his per­sonal life, in­clud­ing a split from his-then part­ner Valérie Tri­er­weiler and rev­e­la­tions about his re­la­tion­ship with ac­tress Julie Gayet. What­ever his legacy, as his pres­i­dency draws to a close in 2017, Hol­lande will have seen France through some ex­tra­or­di­nary, and some­times dif­fi­cult, times in the na­tion’s his­tory.

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