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A SHORT GUIDE TO THE

FRENCH POLITICAL SYSTEM


INTRODUCTION

Although the Greeks might claim that democracy originates from the ancient city state of Athens, the French could plausibily argue that modern democracy emanates from the French Revolution of 1789 - although the course of democracy in France has hardly run smooth since then.

Indeed, unlike the American political system [click here] and the British political system [click here] which essentially have existed in their current form for centuries, although the French political system has evolved since 1789 - with the two world wars having a major impact - the current form of the French system is a much more recent construct dating from 1958 and today's Fifth Republic - which centralises substantial power in the President - is a response to the political weaknesses of the pre-Second World War Third Republic and post-war Fourth Republic.

The Fifth Republic came about following a political crisis over France's colonial war in Algeria, when Charles de Gaulle took power under a new constitution which gave the President new executive powers compared to the Fourth Republic, making the post uniquely powerful in European politics.

In the French political system, the relationship between the President and the Prime Minister - the first- and second-highest authorities respectively - is critical. It is not always the case that these two individuals come from the same political party or part of the political spectrum and, when they are of different political persuasion (as was the case in 1986, 1993 and 1997), the two figures must practice a process of “cohabitation”.

THE PRESIDENCY

Four of France's five Republics have had presidents as their heads of state, making the French presidency the oldest presidency in Europe still to exist in some form. However, in each of the Republics' constitutions, the President's powers, functions and duties - and his relation with French governments - have differed. Under the Third and Fourth Republic, which were parliamentary systems, the office of President of the Republic was a largely ceremonial and powerless one. The constitution of the current Fifth Republic greatly increased the President's powers.

Consequently the Presidency is easily the most powerful position in the French political system. Duties include heading the armed forces, appointment of the Prime Minister, power to dismiss the National Assembly, chairing the Council of Ministers (equivalent to the Cabinet in Britain), appointing the members of the highest appellate court and the Constitutional Court, chairing the Higher Council of the Judiciary, negotiating all foreign treaties, and the power to call referenda, but all domestic decisions must be approved by the Prime Minister. The President has a very limited form of suspensive veto: when presented with a law, he or she can request another reading of it by Parliament, but only once per law.

The official residence of the President is the Elysée Palace.

Since 1875, the President has been barred from appearing in person before the National Assembly or the Senate in order to ensure that the executive and the legislature are kept seperate.

Candidates for the Presidency must obtain 500 sponsoring signatures of elected officials from at least 30 departments or overseas territories. The post is directly elected in a two-stage voting system. A candidate who receives more than 50% of the vote in the first round is elected. However, if no candidate receives 50%, there is a second round which is a run-off between the two candidates who secured the most votes in the first round. This is held two weeks later. All elections are held on a Sunday.

The term is five years, a reduction from the previous seven years. A President can seek a second term and normally secures it, but two President of the Fifth Republic have failed a re-election bid: Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Nicolas Sarkozy.

In May 2012, Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent President and candidate of the conservative UMP, was beaten in the second round of the Presidential election by the Socialist Party candidate François Hollande, the self-syled 'Mr Normal', who gained 51.63% of the vote. Hollande is the first socialist President in France for 17 years and has never previously held ministerial office. He soon became so unpopular in the polls that he acquired the new nickname of Monsieur Flanby - a reference to a wobbly French pudding.

The next Presidential election will be held in May 2017.

THE EXECUTIVE

The head of the government is the Prime Minister who is nominated by the majority party in the National Assembly and appointed by the President for an indefinite term.

The Prime Minister recommends Ministers to the President, sets out Ministers' duties and responsibilities, and manages the daily affairs of government. He issues decrees and is responsible for national defence.

Following the election of the new President François Hollande in May 2012, Jean-Marc Ayrault - who was previously leader of the Socialist group in parliament - was appointed Prime Minister. However, following local elections in March 2014 when the Socialists did very badly, a new Prime Minister was appointed by Hollande: Manuel Valls, who has been likened to the British politician Tony Blair. Interestingly, he was born in Spain and only acquired French citizenship at the age of 17 - his father was Spanish and his mother Swiss.

The Council of Ministers - typically consisting of around 15-16 individuals - is headed by the Prime Minister but chaired by the President. The total size of the ministerial team is typically 30-40. The members of the Council are called Ministers, while the junior ministers are known as Secretaries of State - the reverse of the nomenclature in the British political system.

It is customary for the President, in consultation with the Prime Minister, to select elected representatives from the National Assembly for ministerial posts, but this is not a set rule. For example, there has been Raymond Barre, Prime Minister (1976-81), who prior to that appointment was a university economics lecturer, while Thierry Breton, Minister for Economy, Finance and Industry (2005-07) was a business man.

THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY

The lower house in the French political system is the National Assembly. This has 577 seats representing single-member constituencies. The 2.5 million French people living abroad have the opportunity to vote in one of 11 constituencies grouping areas of the world together.

Members of the National Assembly are directly elected in a two-stage voting system. A candidate who receives more than 50% of the vote in the first round is elected. However, if no candidate receives 50%, there is a second round which is a run-off between all those first round candidates who secured more than 12.5% of the votes in that first round. This is held one week later. All elections are held on a Sunday.

Members of the National Assembly serve five-year terms.

The National Assembly tends to specialise in scrutinising day-to-day government business. In cases of disagreement with the Senate, the position of the National Assembly prevails. Critics have argued that the Assembly is weak in terms of setting its own agenda and holding the exeutive to account.

The last Assembly elections were held in June 2012 when the Socialist grouping won a comfortable victory over the Right-wing grouping, taking 331 seats to 229 (17 members are outside the two groups).

The next Assembly elections will be held in June 2017.

Link: French National Assembly click here

THE SENATE

The upper house in the French political system is the Senate. This currently has a total of 348 seats (the number depends on population changes): 323 representing mainland France, 13 representing French overseas territories, and 12 representing French nationals abroad. Many French Senators are also high-level local officials.

Members of the Senate are indirectly elected by an electoral college made up mainly of local officials which provides a rural and therefore Right-wing bias to the process. Indeed, since the Fifth Republic was established in 1958, Right-wing parties have always held a majority in the Senate until the elections of September 2011 when the Left took control for the first time. Members serve a six-year term - a reduction from the previous nine years - and one-half of seats (previously one-third) come up for election every three years.

The next Senate elections will be held on 21 or 28 September 2014.

The Senate tends to specialise in constitutional matters and foreign affairs including European integration (it has a 'listening post' in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union).

The Senate meets in the Luxembourg Palace.

Link: French Senate click here

POLITICAL PARTIES

France is a multi-party political system which means that often no one party wins a majority of seats in the Assembly. Indeed the major parties themselves are often very fractional with shifting personal allegiances. French politics is therefore characterised by two politically opposed groupings:

A growing third movement is building on the support of the Right-wing, anti-immigrant Front National which did particularly well in the local elections of March 2014. The party is led by Marine Le Pen.

For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, since June 2012 the Socialist grouping holds all three elected arms of government: the Presidency, the National Assemby and the Senate.

In France, unlike most other democracies, the majority of national politicians are former civil servants (often high-ranking). Most Presidents, many Cabinet members and a very large number of parliament members graduated from the same prestigious school, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration.

The French take their politics seriously and voter participation is very high (it was 79.48% in the 2012 Presidential election).

THE JUDICIARY

France uses a civil legal system; that is, law arises primarily from written statutes; judges are not to make law, but merely to interpret it. The basic principles of the rule of law were laid down in the Napoleonic Code.

The highest appellate court in France is called the Cour de Cassation and the six chief judges are appointed by the President. Unlike the supreme courts in other countries (such as the USA), it does not have the power of judicial review.

The power of judicial review is vested in a separate Constitutional Court which is a unique creation of the Fifth Republic. The court consists of nine members: one appointment made by each of the President, the President of the Senate, and the President of the National Assembly every three years for a nine-year, non-renewable term. This contrasts with the US system where the President makes all appointments to the Supreme Court but then the appointments are for life.

All former Presidents of the Republic - known as "les sages" (the wise) - are de jure members of the Constitutional Court. Currently there are three of them, giving the court a membership of 12.

The Court meets infrequently, only upon referral of legislation by the President, the Prime Minister or the the Parliament.

ROGER DARLINGTON

Last modified on 4 April 2014

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