From Revolution to the Rule of Law: Constitutionalizing Charisma

Charismatic leaders, from George Washington to Nelson Mandela, have dominated political revolutions in many nations. More important than their charisma itself though, at least once the Bastille is stormed, is how these leaders channel charisma into a constitutional order. France’s twentieth-century experience with presidentialism provides a particularly rich example of this process, and exposes the danger of neglecting it. 

After liberation in 1944, France began the process of rebuilding, beginning with the most difficult and consequential of tasks: writing a constitution that would protect against another authoritarian regime like Vichy. General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces, was the clear choice to lead the new Provisional Government of Liberated France. However, unlike in neighboring Italy, which had no such obvious leader, de Gaulle’s charisma proved fatal for the Fourth Republic and compromising to its successor. After two years of agitating for a stronger executive, de Gaulle threatened to resign if the Fourth Republic adopted a constitution that kept the executive weak. In November 1946, the Fourth Republic was declared, and de Gaulle departed public life, certain that one day he would be called back to power.

De Gaulle did return — twelve turbulent years later — ushering in the Fifth Republic, a dual-executive government with an independently elected president and prime minister. It was not so much a cohesive system as an instrument for de Gaulle to wield power. Unlike the United States under Washington or South Africa under Mandela, de Gaulle’s idiosyncratic constitutionalization of his charisma had deleterious consequences for France’s political stability. As current President Emmanuel Macron grapples with an unruly, independently elected French Parliament, de Gaulle’s constitutional legacy has come back to haunt France in a real-world example of “hyper-presidentialism”, to use Juan Linz’s formulation.

Bruce Ackerman explores France’s experience with constitutionalism, and that of many other nations, in Revolutionary Constitutions: Charismatic Leadership and the Rule of Law. In exploring the interplay of revolution and lawmaking, Ackerman assists in answering why some regimes realize their revolutionary ideals, and others fall short of them.


Revolutionary Constitutions: Charismatic Leadership and the Rule of Law
Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University

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