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Modern Europe

French Invent Seven Year Presidency

by Peter Kessler, 13 August 2007

Louis Bonaparte, nephew of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, founded the French 'Second Empire' in 1852. The restored empire was never quite as successful as its predecessor, however, and by 1870 Louis Bonaparte had fallen for Otto von Bismark's bait to declare war on Prussia.

Unfortunately for the French, while they were still living off the glory of victories gained over half a century before, Prussia had built itself the most modern and powerful army in Europe. Louis Bonaparte was soundly defeated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

Paris was occupied and at Versailles Palace von Bismarck declared the establishment of imperial Germany. Moreover, the 'Paris Commune' was formed in the aftermath of the humiliating defeat, and the declaration of the 'Third Republic' quickly followed.

The Paris Commune was quickly crushed and the republic was about to be turned into a kingdom again, in line with the wishes of the majority of deputies. A compromise was required, so two opposing groups of pro-monarchy deputies first endorsed a constitution (in 1871) and then elected Adolphe Thiers, the victor over the Paris commune, to become president of the republic.

Two years later, General Mac Mahon became the new president of France. The re-establishment of the kingdom was always pushed into the background. In fact, pro-monarchy groups even agreed on the identity of the next king, Henri Dieudonné, count of Chambord.

When this gentleman refuted the blue-white-red flag of revolutionaries as the flag of the French kingdom, his kingship came to nothing. From then on, the assembly extended the duration of Mac Mahon's term of office to seven years in order to gain sufficient time for the spoilsport count to pass away so that they could eventually find another adequate candidate.

The system, however, settled down in the meantime; there was no return to kingdom and the seven year formula lasted exactly a hundred and twenty-seven years. In fact the system proved so enduring that the Turkish republic copied it.

While Turkey continues to use it today, former French president, Jacques Chirac, reduced it to five-plus-five years in 2000.

French Zouaves in the Crimea
This illustration of French Zouaves (light infantry, generally drawn from North Africa) in the Crimea was published in The Charleston Mercury on 21 November 1861



Text copyright © P L Kessler, based on work by Cengiz Aktar for Turkish Daily News. An original feature for the History Files.