A Quick Recap of the French Presidents
In France, politics is a great part of everyday conversations. French people in general tend to discuss current news every day at work or between friends – it may have to do with our long tradition of debating. Do you want to learn more about French politics? In this article, I will explain you everything you need to know about the French presidents.
The presidents I will list and discuss here are all of the 8 presidents that have been in office since 1959 – date of the beginning of the 5th republic in France. All these presidents (from Charles de Gaulle to current president Emmanuel Macron) are iconic political figures here in France, and knowing who they are and their main political achievements is a prerequisite for understanding current French politics.
The 8 presidents below are the most famous political figures in France; each of their terms if office was agitated by controversies that I will of course dwell on below. 4 of them (Giscard d’Estaing, Sarkozy, Hollande, Macron) are still alive.
Also, it is worth nothing that no less than 5 of them were educated at Sciences Po Paris, an elite school in France that aims at educating France’s political and administrative elite.
Also, before we dive into the subject – if you are curious about all things French and Parisian, I think you should know that some locals are giving free tours to help you experience the French capital like a true Parisian. If you are willing to explore the hidden gems in each of Paris’ iconic neighborhoods and truly feel the city like a local, click here to book yours!
Now, without further ado, let me introduce you to the specificities and controversies of the 8 French presidents that have marked history since 1959.
1. Charles de Gaulle (1890 – 1970)
Number of terms completed as French president: 2 terms (1959 to 1966 and 1966 to 1969).
If there is one name you should remember from this article, it should be the name of Charles de Gaulle. The first French president under the 5th Republic, he is somewhat of an institution here in France. He is famous for his very specific and strong governing style, focused on perpetuating and expanding “France’s Greatness” (this should remind you of the political slogan of a certain current American president) and strengthening the figure and powers of the French president.
As such, his governing style was accused to be a “perpetual coup” by French president François Mitterrand (see #4 to learn more about Mitterrand).
After serving in the French army as an officer during World War 1, De Gaulle’s fame skyrockets during World War Two. He famously refused the armistice that French president Pétain wanted to sign with Hitler’s Germany. De Gaulle then flew to London, where he launched the all too famous call to resistance from the BBC radio on June 18th, 1940. Called “l’appel du 18 Juin” in France, this speech is considered a founding event in French politics; De Gaulle urged all French to resist to Germany’s occupation and France’s collaboration.
He was elected president in 1958 during Algeria’s war; after admitting to Algeria’s independence with his famous “I understood you” speech, he started negotiating Africa’s decolonization while ensuring France was still influent on the continent.
During his term, he famously bluffed by pretending to retire during the crisis of May 1968 in France, to break the strikes. He then eventually resigned in 1969, and died 18 months later.
2. Georges Pompidou (1911 – 1974)
Number of terms completed as French president: 1 term (1969 to 1974). It is worth noting that Georges Pompidou was the only French president that died while serving in office, two years before the end of his term.
Georges Pompidou was prime minister during de Gaulle’s term; he was elected president when De Gaulle resigned in 1969. He is known for being an extremely elegant and educated French president, and a famous graduate from the very selective ENS (Ecole Normale Supérieure).
Pompidou’s policy orientation was focused on the strengthening of European economic bonds; one of his most emblematic reforms being the widening of the CEE (Economical European Community) in 1972 by referendum.
After his unexpected death, senate president Alain Poher was in charge of current affairs until the election of the next president (Valery Giscard d’Estaing)
3. Valery Giscard d’Estaing (born in 1926)
Number of terms completed as French president: 1 term (1974 to 1981). Valery Giscard d’Estaing is commonly referred to as “VGE” by French people.
Valery Giscard d’Estaing is famous for changing the landscape of French society. He indeed undertook several legislative reforms aiming at modernizing French society, including lowering the legal age of majority in France from 21 to 18 years old and above all the depenalization of abortion. This law bears the name of “loi Veil”, from the name of famous feminist and health minister Simone Veil under the term of Valery Giscard D’Estaing.
Valery Giscard d’Estaing is also famous for his extremely interventionist foreign policy; he notably implicated France in Mauritania, Central African Republic, Zaïre, and Chad. He is also known for his tough and violent policies regarding immigration, which contrasted with his otherwise liberal societal policies.
He served only one term and was defeated in 1981 against François Mitterrand. His defeat is widely attributed to the fact that he had to deal with economic hardships due to the end of the Glorious Thirty (“Les Trente Glorieuses”, period of economic growth from 1945 to 1975) and the oil crisis of 1975.
4. François Mitterrand (1916 – 1996)
Number of terms completed as French president: 2 terms (1981 to 1988 and 1988 to 1995). François Mitterrand is the French president that remained in office the longest: he remained president for no less than 14 years.
François Mitterrand was the first French president that identified as belonging to a socialist political party (the second one was François Hollande elected in 2012; see #7).
He is most famous for abolishing the death penalty in France, and ratifying the Maastricht treaty that gave birth to the European Union as we know it today.
His terms were marked by the fall of the wall in Germany and the Gulf war in which France took and active part. It was the first time that under a presidential term, the government knew a cohabitation (meaning prime ministers Jacques Chirac and Edouard Balladur were from right parties opposed to Mitterrand’s socialist party).
Mitterrand died shortly after the end of his second term, from a cancer of the prostate. He is also famous for the controversies that agitated his terms and his infidelities that would often be featured one the first page of tabloids and newspapers alike.
5. Jacques Chirac (1932-2019)
Number of terms completed as French president: 2 terms (1995 to 2002 and 2002 to 2007).
Jacques Chirac has been elected several times “favorite president of the French people”. He was first minister under Mitterrand’s term in office, and was elected at the end of his last term.
Jacques Chirac is famous for reducing the length of the French presidential term from 7 to 5 years by referendum. He also notably sent French troops in Afghanistan and was one of the only political figures to firmly oppose the Iraq war in 2003.
His second election was marked by a date that is still engraved in French political collective memory: in April 2002, the results of the first turn of the presidential elections were revealed: against Jacques Chirac, the second candidate still in line was Jean-Marie Le Pen, representing the far-right party Front National. This was the first time a far-right candidate was able to qualify for the second turn of French presidential elections. Jacques Chirac was elected president against him, but this was the first visible signal in France that lower middle-class and working class were feeling left out and struggling economically, and that their votes were being directed towards the Front National.
6. Nicolas Sarkozy (born in 1955)
Number of terms completed as French president: 1 term (2007 to 2012).
Even though Nicolas Sarkozy has served only one term as French president, he has left his mark on the 2010’s in France. He was called the “Bling president” as he was nothing like the other French presidents who were considered to be more elegant. His term was marked by several controversies, from partying in luxury restaurants in the midst of French austerity, or his infamous “Casse-toi pauvre con” (F*ck off you f*cker) that he said to a man who refused to shake his hand at the Agriculture Salon.
Nicolas Sarkozy is famous for France’s involvement in Libya and his resolutely atlantist foreign policy (he reintegrated France in the NATO), as well as his tough attitude regarding immigration in France. His term was marked by the 2008 financial crisis.
He was defeated in 2012 against François Hollande, and then failed to win his party’s primary elections at the next presidential elections. He has since announced that he retired from France’s political life. He is also famous for being the husband of supermodel and singer Carla Bruni.
7. François Hollande (born in 1954)
Number of terms completed as French president: 1 term (2012 to 2017).
François Hollande is the second socialist president to be elected since 1959 (first one was François Mitterrand, see #4). When he was elected, he attempted to position himself as the opposite of “Bling” president Nicolas Sarkozy. As such, was often called the “Normal” president.
He is very famous for the law that made gay marriage possible in France in 2013. This law sparked an incredible amount of controversy in France, and divided the country between pro and anti gay marriage for the five years of his term.
While this law was the one that took all media attention, Hollande’s term was marked by France’s controversial involvement in Mali, Syria and Iraq, as well as two terrorist attacks that choked French political opinion in January and November 2015, against Charlie Hebdo’s journalists and the Bataclan. These events left a lasting mark on France’s political life and marked a securitization turn with Hollande declaring a State of Urgency shortly after.
While Hollande did his best to direct media attention of liberal and progressist societal measures (such as ratifying the Paris Agreement), his harsh economic policy and his willingness to restructure Labor law in France made him increasingly unpopular, to a point where he renounced on the idea of pursuing a second term – he was the first ever elected president to give up on being reelected.
8. Emmanuel Macron (born in 1977)
Number of terms completed as French president: 1 term so far (2017 to 2022, expectedly)
And that brings us to our current French president, the infamous Emmanuel Macron. He was elected in 2017 against Marine Le Pen, the second far-right candidate of the Front National to ever make it to the second turn (first one was her father Jean-Marie Le Pen against Jacques Chirac in 2002; see #5).
To be elected, Emmanuel Macron founded his own political party (La République en Marche), which aimed at transcending France’s bipartisan political divide between left and right.
Even though Emmanuel Macron has only served two years in office so far, his term has been exceptionally agitated. His anti-terrorism law has faced popular backlash; and so did his reform of the Labor code in France.
However, the most marking event of his term yet has been the Gilets Jaunes uprisings that started in October 2018 to protest Macron’s economical policy that disfavored working class in favor of an increased privatization of France’s key public services. The uprising was one of the most important of the last few years in France, and resulted in Macron announcing a series of measures to quell the protests (one of the most symbolic being the suppression of the ENA, Ecole Nationale d’Administration, one of France’s most elitist schools that aimed at educating France’s political and administrative leaders).
This quick recap is now over, I hope it was useful to you! French politics have always been fascinating to me and as a twenty-something French student living in Paris, politics are always part of our everyday conversations with my friends and coworkers.