A popular referendum approved the constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958, greatly strengthening the authority of the presidency and the executive in relation to Parliament.
The executive branch
France has an original system with an executive headed by two officials: the President and the Prime Minister.
The President of the Republic
Under the constitution, a president was originally elected for a seven year term; this however has now been reduced to five years. The president names the prime minister, presides over the cabinet, commands the armed forces, and concludes treaties. The president may submit questions to a national referendum and can dissolve the National Assembly. In certain emergency situations, the president may assume full powers.
Under the system created by Charles de Gaulle, the President is the pre-eminent executive figure, who names the Prime Minister and cabinet, which is composed of a varying number of ministers, ministers-delegates, and secretaries of state. Where the President’s political party or supporters control parliament, the President is in effect the dominant player in executive action, chosing whomever he wishes for government, and having it follow his political agenda. However where the President’s political opponents control parliament, the President’s dominance can be severely limited, as he must choose a prime minister and cabinet reflecting the majority in parliament. Where parties from opposite ends of the political spectrum control parliament and the presidency, the power-sharing arrangement is known as Cohabitation.
As of 2003, the President is Jacques Chirac (since 17 May 1995).
The cabinet of ministers
The gouvernement, or cabinet, is headed by the Prime Minister. It has at its disposal the civil service the government agencies and the armed forces.
The cabinet is responsible before Parliament, and the National Assembly may vote a motion of censure, which forces the resignation of the cabinet. Ministers have to answer questions from members of Parliament, both written and oral; this is known as the questions au gouvernement. In addition, ministers are to attend meetings of the houses of Parliament where laws pertaining to their area of responsability are discussed.
Traditionally, the cabinet comprises, in decreasing rank:
deputy ministers (ministres dÃ©lÃ©guÃ©s), who assist a minister in parts of its duties;
- secretaries of state (secrÃ©taires d’Ã©tat), who assist a minister in parts of its duties and attend cabinet meetings only occasionally.
In the past of the Fifth Republic, some ministers of particular importance were called “ministers of state” (ministres d’Ã‰tat), but this was of purely honorific signifiance.
The number of ministries and the splitting of responsabilities and administrations between them varies between the successive cabinets, but some positions tend to stay the same, even though the exact title of the position may vary:
Ministry of Finances (taxes, budget),
Ministry of the Interior (law enforcement, relationships with local governments),
Ministry of Justice (prisons, running the court system, supervision of the prosecution service),
Ministry of Education,
Ministry of Defense,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The prime minister signs decrees, which are countersigned by the competent ministers. All ministers may take administrative decisions (arrÃªtÃ©s) in their field of competence. Anybody with an interest in the case may sue before the Conseil d’Ã‰tat for the cancellation of a decree or decision.
The gouvernement has a leading role in shaping the agenda of the houses of Parliament. It may propose laws to Parliament , as well as amendments during parliamentary meetings. It may make use of some procedures to speed up parliamentary deliberations.
The cabinet has weekly meetings (in normal times, on Wednesday mornings) at the Ã‰lysÃ©e Palace chaired by the president.
As of 2003, the prime minister is Jean-Pierre Raffarin (since 6 may 2002).
The legislative branch
Parliament meets for one 9-month session each year: under special circumstances the president can call an additional session. Although parliamentary powers have diminished from those existing under the Fourth Republic, the National Assembly can still cause a government to fall if an absolute majority of the total Assembly membership votes to censure.
The National Assembly
The National Assembly is the principal legislative body. Its 577 deputies are directly elected for 5-year terms in local majority votes, and all seats are voted on in each election.
The National Assembly may cause the resignation of the executive cabinet by voting a motion of censure. For this reason, the prime minister and his cabinet are necessarily from the dominant party or coalition in the assembly. In the case of a president and assembly from opposing parties, this leads to the situation known as cohabitation.
Senators are chosen by an electoral college of about 145,000 local elected officials for 6-year terms, and one half of the Senate is renewed every 3 years. There are currently 321 senators, but there will be 346 in 2010; 304 represent the metropolitan and overseas dÃ©partements, 5 the other dependencies and 12 the French established abroad.
The Senate’s legislative powers are limited; on most matters of legislation, the National Assembly has the last word in the event of a disagreement between the two houses.
Since the beginning of the Fifth Republic, the Senate has always had a right-wing majority. This, the indirect mode of election and the inequality of representation with respect to demographics prompted (now former) prime minister Lionel Jospin to declare the Senate an “anachronism”.
The most distinctive feature of the French judicial system is that it is divided into the judiciary and the administrative orders of courts.
The Judicial Order
The judicial order of courts judges civil and penal cases. It consists in first instance courts, courts of appeal, and the Cour de cassation at its helm.
Judges are civil servants, but enjoy special statutory protection from the executive. They may not be moved or promoted without their consent. Their career are overseen by the High Council of the Magistracy
The prosecution service, on the other hand, responds to the Minister of Justice. This has in the past led to suspicions of pressures to drop litigation against politicians suspected of corruption, and the topic of the stat
us of the prosecutors comes up regularly in political discussions.
Trial by jury are used in the judgment of the most severe crimes.
Pre-judgment proceedings are inquisitorial, but the actual court appearance is rather adversarial.
As in all democracies respecting human rights, criminal justice legally respects the presumption of innocence.
Traditionally, decision-making in France was highly centralized, with each of France’s departments headed by a prefect appointed by the central government. In 1982, the national government passed legislation to decentralize authority by giving a wide range of administrative and fiscal powers to local elected officials. In March 1986, regional councils were directly elected for the first time, and the process of decentralization continues, albeit at a slow pace.
Administrative units with a local government consist in:
about 36000 communes, headed by a municipal council and a mayor, grouped in
100 dÃ©partements, headed by a conseil gÃ©nÃ©ral and its president, grouped in
22 rÃ©gions, headed by a regional council and its president.
Different levels of administration have different duties, and shared responsibility is common; for instance, in the field of education, communes run public elementary schools, while dÃ©partements run public junior highschools and rÃ©gions run public highschools, but only for the building and upkeep of buildings; curricula and teaching personnel are supplied by the national Ministry of Education.
Modern French Politics under President Chirac
During his first 2 years in office, President Jacques Chirac’s prime minister was Alain JuppÃ©, who served contemporaneously as leader of Chirac’s neo-Gaullist (RPR) Party. Chirac and JuppÃ© benefited from a very large, if rather unruly, majority in the National Assembly (470 out of 577 seats). Mindful that the government might have to take politically costly decisions in advance of the legislative elections planned for spring 1998 in order to ensure that France met the Maastricht criteria for the single European currency, Chirac decided in April to call early elections.
The Left, led by Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin, whom Chirac had defeated in the 1995 presidential race-unexpectedly won a solid National Assembly majority (319 seats, with 289 required for an absolute majority). President Chirac named Jospin prime minister on June 2, and Jospin went on to form a government composed primarily of Socialist ministers, along with some ministers from allied parties of the Left, such as the Communist Party and the Greens. Jospin stated his support for continued European integration and his intention to keep France on the path toward Economic and Monetary Union, albeit with greater attention to social concerns.
The tradition in periods of “cohabitation” (president of one party, prime minister of another) is for the president to exercise the primary role in foreign and security policy, with the dominant role in domestic policy falling to the prime minister and his government. Jospin stated, however, that he would not a priori leave any domain exclusively to the president.
Chirac and Jospin worked together, for the most part, in the foreign affairs field with representatives of the presidency and the government pursuing a single, agreed French policy. Their “cohabitation” arrangement was the longest-lasting in the history of the Fifth Republic. However it ended, following the National Assembly elections that followed Chirac’s heavy defeat of Jospin (who failed even to make it through to the second round of voting) in the 2002 presidential election. President Chirac’s current prime minister is the right wing Jean-Pierre Raffarin.