Reading on Max Weber’s studies, one can observe different forms of legitimacy behind the authority of a government exercising domination over its population. Three reasons three reasons why should we submit and obey to such political authority can actually be discerned. First, the one of tradition, in which one would obey because the power has been legitimated due to the fact that it is rooted in the customs and history of the group. It is the legitimacy of Kings and Monarchs. Then, the one of charisma, expressed through the extraordinary achievements of one man or woman, chosen to be at the top. This charismatic power is associated to prophets, heroes and military man being called at the top of the state to govern. And thirdly, the authority justified by its legality, in accordance with the rational rules established by a group; exercised by the civil servant and more frequent in the modern state. A 130 years ago, was born a man who drastically shaped the future of France, its institutions. His destiny in the service of France on the national and international stage, also clearly defined the relations of this country with its neighbours and international organizations like the European project. But what was the source of his power? What made his authority so legitimate in France that even today, his successors press on to pay homage to him and always seek to present themselves as his heirs? It could simply be argued that Charles De Gaulle’s authority, and his power as President, would be legitimated on a rational basis, under the fact that he campaigned to become President of the Republic and was legally elected both in 1958 and 1965. But this would be too simple. Yes, his authority as the first chief of state of the Fifth Republic does rely on a legal basis, but I will argue that De Gaulle’s basis of legitimacy as President and founder of the Fifth Republic was mainly due to its charismatic role as he took part in the Second World War. I will also look at the doctrine he brought with the conception of the Fifth Republic of France as well as assess the symbolic power vested in him, once President.

De Gaulle, the source of his power.

General de Gaulle reviews Free French troops in 1942. He had arrived in London in 1940 with two suitcases.

To further explain on the concept of charismatic leader, Weber argues that its emergence is done through a specific unusual context, in opposition to ‘fixed’ rational routines. In other words, the rise of this charismatic ‘hero’ is issued from a situation outside the realm of everyday routine, like in times of crisis. It also implies that this type of leader does not belong to any legal codes. Instead, its attitude is considered to be revolutionary toward any traditional or legal establishment as he seeks to ‘transvalue’ the legitimacy with these forms of authority. This is something we can find in General De Gaulle’s actions during the war. As the French government of Marechal Petain – favouring an entente with Hitler – declares in June 17Th 1940 the armistice with Germany, De Gaulle decides the followig day to make his own call from his exile in London, in which he presents an alternative to this defeatist position: France represented by himself and gathered around him, would continue the fight. Thus, it is in times of crisis and in complete illegality that the General De Gaulle decides to surge out of the ranks, pleading against the position of the legally legitimate government of France. Further elements are the basis of De Gaulle’s legitimacy as a charismatic leader. In his action, De Gaulle embodies the heroic values of the charismatic leader Weber previously introduced: As an example, his actions are not guided by self-interested goals, like a ‘politician without a calling’, but rather attached to a precise set of superior principles, which separate him from the former or a military chieftain seeking to become a ‘Caesar’. In his address, the reasons at the basis of his calling are obvious: outlining that France’s capitulation declared by the Petain Government would lead to a complete submission to the German authorities, which is against the codes of national sovereignty and the interest of the people but moreover, that the war could not be considered over as French military capabilities were still strong. Hence, De Gaulle only rose in order to restore with him the honour of the nation and defend the superior interest of the French people, which he accused the rational government to have abandoned. Additionally, such type of charisma would emerge in order to also express sentiments deeply held by the masses. It appears De Gaulle obtained this final parameter assuring his charismatic qualities, as two years after his call in 1942, he is then in command of: 70 000 men, overseas territories belonging to the French Colonial Empire and the Resistance movement in France. Moreover, although he was not the legal representative of France then, De Gaulle was also recognized by the Allies as the legitimate leader of the Free France. Therefore, the source of his authority in these times of crisis did not flow from a legal basis, but instead from an irrational dimension. It is the projection of these charismatic qualities and the emotional relationship he succeeded to establish with his followers, that convinced the French people to support him. 

I must then demonstrate how this charismatic power is at the source of De Gaulle’s rise to power in 1958. Working on symbolism in politics, Murray Edelman argues that as soon as an individual is ‘recognized as a legitimate leading official of the state’ he embodies ‘a symbol of some or all the aspects of the state’. In applying this concept on De Gaulle, it could be argue that his actions and success during the war, has built around him a charismatic figure of ‘saviour’ of the nation. It resulted an undisputable legitimacy emanating from the General as a sort of guarantor of France’s superior interest. This would push French people to view him as the best rational choice under an election for he had already proven to be able to take care of the nation’s interests without having been chosen. This argument can best be supported when looking at the historical period after the war, in the time between the Fourth Republic and the Fifth, and what is commonly called by scholars as De Gaulle’s own ‘traversée du désert’ (‘crossing of the desert’, in reference to the biblical event). In the aftermath of the war, seeing that the new regime, the Fourth Republic of France, would be structured as a parliamentary system similar to the pre-war system in France, De Gaulle decides not to participate to the political life of the regime as he considered it to be too unstable. It is only twelve years after the conception of this Republic that in 1958, amidst governmental instability and the difficulty to resolve crises such as in Algeria, that progressively grew a national movement composed of a variety of public officials and the favourable public opinion which sought to bring De Gaulle back in the political scene. Therefore, it is as if De Gaulle used those years away from power, accompanied by the previous legitimacy he historically obtained and the crisis the Fourth Republic faced, to construct an image of, if not “prophet”, a “providential man”, called by the nation to return. Due to the fact that he previously obtained the national unanimity as he saved France during the Second World War, he incarnates this symbolic position of “the most illustrious of the French” to quote one of the last President of the Fourth Republic, René Coty, (INA, 1958) whom conceded his presidency in favour of De Gaulle’s return in the government. This charismatic power allowed him to be seen as the only individual capable of saving France from crisis in 1958; leading to his legal investiture by Parliament in June 1st and 3rd of 1958 for a mandate as President of the Fourth Republic only to submit to the nation a new constitution and resolve the institutional crisis. Thus, although the De Gaulle’s project for a new constitution in 28TH of September 1958, and his following elections to the new Presidency later on were obtained rationally, these outcomes were influenced by de Gaulle’s image of ‘prophetic leader’. Indeed, and the electoral turnout on the adoption of the new constitution, through referendum, proved De Gaulle’s success with 82% of the voters responding “yes” the new constitution in a referendum comprising 80% of the registered voters nation-wide. This again was influenced by the charismatic leader, as he even used the announcement of the new constitution – on the anniversary of the Third Republic of France – to publicly declare to the masses gathered in front of him at Place de la République, that he was in favour and demanded to the French people to vote “yes”. As to the following presidential elections in the new Republic, it is with not surprise that he won with 78% of the turnout ahead of his competitors in an election conducted by “great electors” suffrage, obtaining 62 thousand votes, out of the 81 thousand registered. Therefore, most of the process that led to the birth of the Fifth Republic and De Gaulle’s arrival as President was done so rationally, but it can also be argued that the return of De Gaulle on the political scene, as well as the electoral turnouts of the referendum and the presidential elections of 1958, were driven by charismatic power, and the symbolic legitimacy which derives from it. 

This leader gifted with charismatic abilities, therefore served as a re-introducer of political impulsion facing the institutional turmoil of the Fourth Republic – which will be further explained in the next part. Additionally, his doctrine shaped the constitution of the Fifth Republic and the new Presidential function. 

The ‘Gaullian’ doctrine as the organisational matrix of the Fifth Republic.

General De Gaulle, President of the Republic, in a televised allocution, March 19th 1962.

What is considered as the “Gaullian doctrine” or the “Gaullian project” refers to de Gaulle’s proposed as a vision for a new Republic in the aftermath of the war, during his speech at Bayeux, in 1946. It is characterized firstly by the rejection of a parliamentarism exercising both the roles of the legislative and the executive, and the proposition of a reconstruction of the executive centred around the President, his function reinforced.  His doctrine claims the following: 

(1) The executive power must proceed from a chief of State placed above the party quarrels by his election through an electoral college comprising and yet greater than Parliament giving him a fixed term mandate. 

(2) He would be the one in charge of naming his own government – with the orientation of parliament – including his Prime Minister conducting the policy of the nation. Thus, separating the executive from the legislative and reducing its capacity to interfere. 

(3) The Presidential role would be strengthened in many areas in order to frame the role of the executive and render less likely the intrusion of the legislative: The President would act as “arbitrary” and be the one who preside over the council of Ministers; he would promulgate the laws and sign the decrees. In times of great confusion, it would be once again up to him to directly invite the nation to make known its decision through a vote. 

(4) Ultimately, de Gaulle adds in his doctrine – perhaps inspired from his own experience – that if the country were to face once more a military threat, the President would take the emergency powers in the duration of the crisis. 

Overall, de Gaulle’s doctrine steers away from the traditional parliamentary system previously adapted in the Third Republic (Berstein, 2004 p.21) by proposing a re-balancing of powers in favour of the executive, with a parliament focusing only on its initial purpose and the possibility for the President to have recourse to tools of direct Democracy. De Gaulle’s doctrine could then be inscribed in the lineage of a ‘plebiscite type anti-parliamentarism’ and propose the introduction of a ‘Republican Monarch’ incarnated by the President of the Republic. If de Gaulle’s doctrine steer away from the parliamentary tradition of the French Republic as it can be see with the Third and Fourth anterior regimes, the latter existing from 1947 after the announcement of de Gaulle’s doctrine to 1958, it is because de Gaulle sought to rectify the flaws of the parliamentary tradition in France. He observed a regime within which the political parties gained in parliament were the source of political life and the chamber was actually fulfilling the role of an inexistent executive power. As an example, for entire duration of the Fourth Republic the regime saw the succession of 21 governments in which the longest lasted sixteen months, and the shortest six days, considered a ‘stillborn’ government. This chronic instability can be explained by two electoral laws of the Fourth Republic: the first stating the election of the MPs to be through the proportional representational system while the second, a law of ‘familiarities’, granted to the parties the right to declare semi-alliances to count their votes together without the need to agree on a programmatic plan nor to conduct a united campaign. Ultimately, it is with the fact that under parliamentary regimes, the executive is entirely dependent from the support of the legislative which led to this phenomenon of governmental instability which became a characteristic of the Fourth Republic. On a closer look, in studying the political consequences of electoral laws, French Scholar Maurice Duverger came to realisation of an hypothesis claiming that if a regime were to choose in its constitution a simple majority system with single ballot, the turnout would favour a two-party system, but if it were to choose instead a proportional representation system the outcome would favour a multi-party representation in parliament, thus favouring a game of alliances to obtain a sufficient majority. Duverger’s hypothesis has been corroborated in the views of scholars depicting the difficulty for a party to present a sufficient majority individually, which led to entice parties to conform to this law of ‘familiarities’. Yet instead of efficiently rectifying this issue, the law reinforced the political ‘weight of the parties’ leading to the institutionalization of a ‘political game’ in Parliament, in which all the political groups sought to mutually neutralise each other by breaking and forging new alliances to protect their interests. This ritual in parliament deeply impacted on the function of the executive which in the words of Lefort  became a ‘second deliberative organ’, and its government within which the president was ‘immobile’ for lack of powers to set his authority. Leading to a cycle of creation and ‘self-destruction’ of governments due to the incapacity for the executive to obtain a sufficient support from parliament. Ultimately, it is with the incapacity for the executive to stabilize and answer the Algerian crisis, that it led to a ‘political disengagement’ from the French people in favour of de Gaulle’s proposal, considering that the political power seemed to be kept in a ‘closed circuit’ within parliament; retaining the sovereignty of the people.  

As a result, although de Gaulle promised for the constitution of 1958 to maintain Parliament as the source of national representation, but he paradoxically sought to rectify his mistakes by reinforcing the role of the executive. He firstly declared that the electoral law of the Fourth Republic was to be replaced by the majority system by circumscription more favourable to provide a party with a sufficient majority, and the election of the President now proceeded from the suffrage of an electoral college, composed of all individual holding a public office, hence separating the executive from the legislative.

The constitutional abilities of the new President were also defined in accordance with de Gaulle’s previously declared doctrine. Moreover the actions of President de Gaulle in the post-Algerian crisis sought to demonstrate the Presidential primacy of the political domain. Indeed, in accumulating the political measures granted by the constitution such as televised addresses to the nation; press conferences in which he gives the political axis of his government in front of his ministers, or by refusing demands from parliament and acting through referendum, de Gaulle successfully sought to marginalize the role of parliament and affirm the place of the President as centre of the political life in France. In this Monarchic practice of the presidency he also sought to implement two more elements: Firstly, that the source of the presidential power is structurally guaranteed and thus, is independent from Parliament. Secondly, that the powers of the President ultimately stretch beyond the constitutional lecture. Indeed, although the constitution states that it is the Prime Minister who conducts the ‘policy of the nation’, de Gaulle takes the liberty in his memoir to declare that it is up to him to interpret the constitutional definition which he answered that “although the government determines the policy of the nation, everyone knows and expects however that it proceeds from my decision”. He even declared in a press conference, that although the definition of the roles may lead to confusion, there cannot be ‘a dyarchy at the top of the state’, implying the dominance of the President over the decision making process, which in the case of de Gaulle, was legitimated by his strong personal context. He imposed his interpretation of the constitution as he dismissed his PM in 1962, an action devoid of any textual legitimacy, as many expected the Prime Minister’s remain in government only to depend upon his support in Parliament. His second notable ‘monarchic’ measure is when in 1962, he decided to pass his constitutional reform, proposing in the future to elect the President by universal and direct suffrage, not by the parliament which he decided to dissolve, but directly through a referendum to the people. With the success of both the referendum and the following legislative elections he successfully established the presidential primacy beyond the constitutional and parliamentary constrains. And in adopting the election of the president by universal & direct suffrage, this succeeds to answer the problem of legitimacy that whomever succeeding de Gaulle would face, as unlike him they would lack the historical context legitimating such considerable powers. In leaving to the people the choice to select their President, it provided to the future incumbent of the function, a rational legitimacy equal to de Gaulle’s charisma; and as he is the only civil servant being elected by the entire nation, the President can carry on this practice of presidential primacy, as, contrary to any members of parliament his legitimacy does not derive from the suffrage of a respective circumscription, but from the entire nation. In other words, the future Presidents’ actions can now be legitimised by the fact that the people make of them, through the election, the first and only person in charge.  Therefore, the constitution of 1958 – under the influence of the Gaullian doctrine -unquestionably represents a mutation of the Republican regime as it reinforces the grips of the President of the Republic. With this constitution, de Gaulle seems to place upon the parliamentary tradition what Max Weber would consider an ‘hegemonic plebiscite democracy’. In which the charismatic chief rules above the institutions with a considerable capacity of decision, capable to transcend the divisions and break with the parliamentary routine as he turns directly to the people.

This transformation of the Republican regime was accompanied by the support of the French people which – marked by the memory of the Fourth Republic and the political instability – have answered positively to both de Gaulle’s referendum proposal and the legislative elections of 1962 following de Gaulle’s dissolution of parliament. This political mutation was even recognized by its principal architect, as he claimed the constitution of the Fifth Republic was a combination of ‘Parliamentary and Presidential’, later substantiated by scholars defining the regime as “semi-presidential”. A regime with a constitution giving to the President considerable powers. His election would be separated from parliament and he would serve for a fixed term. With the President, the executive of a semi-presidential regime is composed of a Prime Minister and a cabinet, which receives the legitimate support of the Parliament. De Gaulle’s practice seemed to present the idea that President’s power was structurally guaranteed and that only he, is the cornerstone of the power in the executive. The constitution brought by de Gaulle, situate the President at the centre of the political life, additionally, with the constitutional reform of 1962, he succeeds to ensure the Presidentialisation of the political system. 

The President, a combination of symbolic and rational power.

On March 25th 1959, this is the first time that journalists are invited, or rather summoned, by the President of the Republic in a process of public speaking lasting many hours.

Still here? Although the previous chapter has proven how the new regime brought by de Gaulle in 1958, then its rectification of 1962, have structurally secured a sort of ‘Imperial’ power of the President, it will further be argued that the President’s power lies beyond the mere institutional structure of the constitution. Rather, it is produced through a symbolic use of the function.

Looking at the political impact of symbols in democracies, scholars argue that the paradox of the representative system is that it is sustained beyond the rational sphere, through the use symbols – an object, a phrase, a representation endowed with a meaning – reinforcing a ‘bond of identity between the ruled and those who are ruled’. As for the Fifth Republic, scholar Lucien Sfez argues that this responsibility belongs in the person of the President of the Republic, whom is both, incarnating symbols, due to the fact that he is elected by the entire nation and that the constitution place him as the protector of the nation, and must also produce symbols. Thus, the President in the Fifth Republic is the embodiment of the nation. Also, this representation can be seen as the product of a symbolic fabrication in which de Gaulle played an important role, as the legitimate charismatic leader. In observing the practice of the President of the Republic, one can see that de Gaulle attempts to mark the Presidential function in producing symbols capable to retain the presidential powers and establish the authority of the function. One of the most notable elements of symbolism under de Gaulle’s presidency is his use of technological advancements such as the radio or the television to speak directly to the nation. His approach was analysed as a method establishing the representation of the Republican Monarch as he reinstitutes a link between the citizens and the ruler in all its symbolic; and this, by directly addressing without intermediaries, all citizens in their singularity, at their home. It results in the reinforcement of a bond between the local level and the top of the state, the people therefore are less likely to feel left out from the policy making as the President addresses to them his policy, and this is particularly increased as the function is firstly occupied by the General de Gaulle, whose opinion and decisions in previous context sustain, at first, his charismatic power as President. Another mark of the symbolism of the President can be seen with the setting of the press conferences held by de Gaulle as President in the large salle des fêtes. A process which he started in 1959 and which throughout the Fifth Republic, became a ritual for all of de Gaulle’s successors. The event consisted about the gathering of a thousand of press representatives in the great room of the Élysée palace which, with the entire government, awaited for the President alone on a podium, to answer the questions of the journalist in a public speaking challenge lasting many hours. These practices helped in constructing a “magical-religious” representation around the President of the Republic as he puts himself in trial regularly during his mandate with these tests, and safely succeed to respond to the questions from the journalists. In combination with the constitutional changings of the Fifth Republic, these symbols helped reinforcing the power of the President by accompanying it with a symbolic aspect. His authority as the cornerstone of the regime can be amplified by these symbols, granting the President the capacity to act in every domain even those he is not entitled to by the”’ texts. 

As it was previously argued, the charismatic legitimacy of de Gaulle, once president, plays also an important role as a support in the fabrication of the symbolic power of the

President and in the routinization of the regime. Although Weber stressed that charisma possesses a non-institutional characteristic when it emerges, he also argued that it can be superposed over a rational or traditional system as it is forced to gradually routinize and present a day to day routine. So the charismatic legitimacy previously obtained by de Gaulle not only supported his rise to power, but also helped in reinforcing the sacredness of the presidential function and its authority. It is most from which, that ultimately results the symbolic representation of the President of the Republic as the one embodying the nation and acting – with all his powers – in the interest of the nation, which de Gaulle may have been aware of. As, in his memoir, after the adoption of the new constitution, he wrote that he reserves to himself the right to shape the practice of the President over the new institutions, solely upon his charismatic link with the people. Therefore, de Gaulle would represent a form of modern inspirational leader, as he uses for a time – particularly at the conception of the new regime – his charismatic image to defend his power and actions beyond the constitutional boundaries. But although charisma can serve as a motor of routinization for either the traditional or rational power, with the accomplishment of routinization, the charismatic power ultimately recedes in favour of either of the traditional or rational upon which it is superposed. This may have also been the case for de Gaulle’s presidency. Indeed, this mutation of what at first we observed as charismatic force, into a rational system, occurred even before de Gaulle’s departure from the Élysée palace. A first element proving the gradual evaporation of de Gaulle’s charisma can be observed with the first presidential elections after the adoption of direct universal suffrage in 1965. With this election, de Gaulle is not re-elected directly in the first ballot, which impacts upon the vision of ‘the chief’, and he only wins the election in the second ballot with 55% of the turnout. A result, in strong contrast with the election of de Gaulle in 1958 (78%), even though the electoral system was not the same then. Further elements also mark the decline of de Gaulle’s charisma. As for the first time in his presidency in April 27TH1969, de Gaulle faced the rejection of one of his referendum – proposing a reform of the senate and the creation regional institution – by 52% of the turnout. This refusal from the masses to grant de Gaulle’s proposal unequivocally marked the recession of his charismatic power; such outcome in the future de Gaulle’s presidency, would have potentially impacted on his considerable capacity to manoeuvre without constrains in the institutions. Instead, this rejection resulted in the immediate resignation of de Gaulle the day after the failed referendum. Not to forget also the social crisis of May 68 which almost costed De Gaulle his presidency, originating firstly from a revolt led by the youth and students in Paris, demonstrated how the charismatic image of De Gaulle no longer appealed to the renewed French society. Thus, although de Gaulle’s charisma and production of symbols have helped in the creation of a symbolic power to the Presidential function, in the face of routinization to a more rational power, his own charismatic image lost some of its ‘political weight’. 

In conclusion it was firstly demonstrated how de Gaulle’s charismatic legitimacy fuelled his rise to power and in the shaping of the constitution of the Fifth Republic. By looking at de Gaulle’s doctrine and the flaws of the previous regime, the Fourth Republic, this allowed to demonstrate that he successfully shaped the Fifth Republic as a regime reorganised around its executive, guaranteed by the President. And the powers of the President, already considerable by the constitution, have been proven to stretch beyond their constitutional definition. This unusual capacity has been proven to be also sustained by de Gaulle’s production of symbols and his charismatic image. But with the continual institutionalization of power in a rational system, it has been argued that gradually the leader’s charisma recedes, and with it, his capacity to legitimize a power beyond the constitutional boundaries. Overall, De Gaulle was essentially a catalytic leader as he served to stabilize and reinforce the State in the republican regime. He reinstated the President as the centre of the political life and essentially his presidency introduced a vision of the chief of state as capable of acting without any contingencies from Parliament due to his constitutional tools, and with the support of the symbolic dimension, capable of acting beyond the textual limits. He incarnates at the same time, the hero, the visionary, the founder and President for which, without him, France would have lost so much. 


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Published by juliennourian

Founder and President of The Political. Specialised in International Politics and European Studies.

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