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Living in the Languedoc:    Central Government:    The Executive

The executive has two heads, the President and the Prime Minister. This is confusing for foreigners, as it often is for the French themselves, as the relationship between President and Prime Minister is not obvious.

The President. The head of State is the President of the Republic , who is elected by direct universal suffrage. He is regarded as the embodiment of the Nation, its history, unity and integrity. He has important powers, such as the power to appoint the Prime Minister, and then, on the latter's proposal, the other members of the government under article 8 of the Constitution. . He can call a referendum, dissolve the National Assembly, negotiate and ratify treaties, and even take the initiative of proposing a revision of the Constitution. He presides over the Council of Ministers, promulgates Acts of Parliament and is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Under Article 16, he may dissolve the National Assembly and in an emergency exercise special powers. Much of his personal authority stems from the way he is elected: by direct universal suffrage. Since so many others in the French system of government are not elected, this gives him a degree of prestige and tacit authority. It is the President of the Republic who holds the bulk of the executive power and has the lion's share of legislative power at his disposal, albeit indirectly. From the 2002 election onwards, the French president is elected for 5 years (It was 7 before then).

Although there is great reluctance to admit it, the President is really an elected late-medieval king. He enjoys much the same powers and continues the efforts of the French king's to build a national identity, exercising huge influence through unelected ministers and regional representatives (Prefects). He has the same difficulties with ministers as the kings always did. Avuncular rather than paternal, he lives in the old French Kings' palaces and spends his free time in their old hunting lodges.

The Government is led by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister who is its day-to-day leader. When the Parliamentary majority belongs to the same camp as the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister is a link between the two. It is he who runs the government and guides the work of Parliament, but the President as head of State sets out the main lines of policy, at least on the most important subjects. The Gornment sets some national policy and carries it out. Under Article 20 of the Constitution the government is answerable to Parliament. (This is similar to the US system, but very different from the modern British system where Government Ministers are invariably selected from representatives of the Legislature). The government is formally parliamentary, in that the government is answerable to the National Assembly which, in principle, has the power to bring it down it at any time.

For more on the Prime Minister, in a new window, visit a French Government website dedicated to the Premier Ministre

Cohabitation. The relationship works well enough when the President and Prime Minister belong to the same party. This is not the case when the President loses the support of the parliamentary majority, a situation described as cohabitation. It forces President and Prime Minister to cohabit at the head of the executive, despite being political adversaries who will often be running against each other in the next elections. Such conditions obtained in France from 1986 to 1988, from 1993 to 1995 and between 1997 and 2002. In thes circumstances the President is limited to the exercise of his powers, having been personally disavowed by the voters in parliamentary elections won by his opponents. The Prime Minister, by contrast, becomes the country's real political boss, though his authority too is limited.

Given that the head of State is to be elected for the same term as the National Assembly deputies, French voters will probably find themselves making these two choices at more or less the same time, which should reduce the danger of the need for cohabitation in the future.

For more on the President, in a new window, visit a French Government website dedicated to the Président de la République


Back.   Back to: The French Constitution. Up  a level to the main page on French Central Government Next page: The Legislature   Forward.
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