It is not often that a country’s leading statesman chooses to retire gracefully without having been defeated in office, but it happened in France on April 28th, 1969. Charles de Gaulle had been propelled to office by the Algerian crisis of 1958. Postwar France had been weak and divided, with a succession of short-lived and unstable governments. In a French lesson in school, I once cheekily asked, “Qui est le premier ministre de la France cette semaine?”
When the Algerian generals staged a coup in 1958, it was clear the Fourth Republic in France could not last, and General de Gaulle was called from retirement to save his country again. He tried, in the Fifth Republic, to restore France’s honour by withdrawing from NATO and making France an independent nuclear power. He gave independence to France’s colonies, including Algeria. He twice vetoed UK accession into the European Economic Community, thinking the UK would be an American Trojan horse, although he favoured a Europe of nations, rather than a united Europe.
When left-wing revolutionary students seized the universities and the streets in 1968, and were joined by striking workers, de Gaulle flew to a French military base in Germany to secure the army’s support, and returned to call a general election, ringing Paris with armed force. The violence evaporated, the election went ahead, and the Gaullists won handsomely. De Gaulle had re-energized the French middle class against the leftist revolutionaries.
A year later he held a constitutional referendum that would have decentralized much of government. When it was defeated with 52.5 percent voting against it, he resigned office and retired to his home in Colombey-les-deux-eglises (which had only one church). He had held power for 11 years.
There have been similar instances of resignation. When Chile’s Augusto Pinochet asked a referendum to allow him to add 8 more years to the 16.5 years he’d already held in office, he resigned when it was defeated, with nearly 56 percent voting against it.
Usually, when a leader has held power for too long, and the people are restless for a new leader with new ideas, it precipitates a constitutional crisis. In rare cases where such a long-term leader holds an honest election, they can be defeated, but more often than not it takes a military coup, such as the one that finally deposed Robert Mugabwe of Zimbabwe.
There is a strong case for constitutional limits. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected four times, the US imposed the present two-term limit for its presidents. In the absence of binding term limits, which Vladimir Putin had amended after first circumventing them, there is a case for a constitutional referendum before extra years can be added. Making it as honest as the ones that retired de Gaulle and Pinochet is, however, more difficult to achieve.