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The ‘Presidential-Parliamentary’ System in France

The “presidential-parliamentary system” of the Fifth Republic carries over the institutions of the previous republics, incorporating elements of the conventional presidential system and parliamentary system. It features a President, responsible to the people, a cabinet called the Council of Ministers, a legislature, and a Prime Minister responsible to that legislature. The constitution of France endows the President with extensive powers, but makes clear that the Prime Minister is the head of government. Still, because of ambiguities in the constitution and a lack of clearly delineated responsibilities, the President can wield de facto authority over the legislature. This strong presidency, having numerous constitutional powers over the Assembly, is a product of de Gaulle’s vision for a decisive leader capable of ruling above party politics and protected from parliamentary interference. However, during times of ‘cohabitation,’ when the President is not from the majority party in the National Assembly, it is the Prime Minister who is the important decision-maker. The drafters of the Fifth Republic’s constitution, building it around the enormously popular de Gaulle, did not anticipate the political circumstances which would lead to ‘cohabitation’ or foresee how it would impact the political system’s function.

The constitution of the Fifth Republic makes a distinction in its wording between the head of state and head of government: it is the Prime Minister, not the President, who under Article 21 of the constitution “directs the action of government,” under Article 20 “shall determine and conduct the policy of the Nation, ” and also “ensures the execution of laws,” and “proposes constitutional amendments to the president.”  He promotes and defends legislation in the National Assembly and before public opinion, counsels the president on policy, and presides over important interministerial committees (Safran 130). The Prime Minister’s government can legislate through decrees, ordinances, and regulations, and, under Article 38 of the constitution, may ask the National Assembly to delegate power to issue decrees in areas normally under the legislature’s jurisdiction. Bills proposed by the government have priority in the legislature, and financial bills may only be submitted by it as well (Safran 134). As the Prime Minister is responsible to the legislature and is closely connected to it, many thus see the position as the one which makes the concrete domestic policy decisions that matter. It is the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, after all, which conduct the day-to-day business of the state and oversee the bureaucracy.

The cabinet of France, known as the Council of Ministers, is part of the government and drafts the policy and legislation to be proposed to the legislature. Its members are appointed by the President, who also presides over its meetings and determines its agenda, except during times of cohabitation. The Prime Minister is a part of the Council of Ministers, along with a number of ministerial posts. This number, along with the duties of the ministers, are also at the discretion of the President, and has historically ranged between twenty-four and forty-nine positions. The President may also decide which ministers participate in the weekly cabinet sessions, called the “Conseil des Ministres” (Safran 129). These ministers, especially the minister of finance, have significant influence in determining and creating policy (notes 10/31). They can also decide which bills are to be discussed in the Assembly and how much time shall be allocated to debate parts of a bill, enabling them to expedite parliamentary deliberations (Safran 134). The President presides over the cabinet, determines its members, and determines its agenda, and thus the cabinet is an important tool for him to create and direct policy. However, ministerial appointments have become largely apolitical in nature, often coming from the top of the highly prestigious and skilled civil service (notes 10/31). The President’s ability to stack the cabinet with political allies, thereby disproportionately increasing his power, is further limited by the fact that it can be brought down by a vote of censure in the Assembly (Safran 135). The President’s cabinet appointees must thus be acceptable to the majority party in the Assembly. As a result, during times of ‘cohabitation’ they are often more receptive to the Prime Minister’s policy preference and leadership. As such, the Prime Minister has de facto control of the cabinet, and therefore policy making, during cohabitation.

Nonetheless, the President of the Fifth Republic holds extensive powers. Popularly elected, the President is responsible and therefore responsive to the people, not the legislature. According to Article 5 of the constitution, it is the President who sees to it that the constitution is observed and guarantees the independence of the state. As stipulated in Article 15, the President is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The President undoubtedly directs the state’s foreign policy: he conducts the nation’s diplomacy, negotiates and signs treaties, and can appoint ambassadors and receive foreign heads of state. Additionally, the president has a wide ranging appointive power, being able to appoint the Prime Minister, members of the Council of Ministers, members of several judiciary bodies, military officers, and political advisers (Safran 124). Such appointive ability enables him to indirectly influence the political process, in that he can put political allies into positions of importance and power. Significantly, he has the power to sign bills and promulgate laws and decrees, to preside over cabinet sessions, and may send messages to the legislature. He therefore has considerable direct influence in the legislative process. His influence in the political process and over the legislature does not end there, however. Though he cannot veto bills, the President may ask parliament to reexamine all or a part of any bill he does not like. He may also submit to the Constitutional Council any act of parliament or treaty which is of doubtful constitutionality. Under Article 11 of the constitution, he may circumvent the legislative process completely by submitting directly to the public a referendum on any organic bill or any treaty requiring ratification. Still, to do this he must first get the advice and consent of his cabinet (Safran 125). The President is also invested with two other important and powerful abilities: he may dissolve the legislature, forcing a new election, and may, under Article 16 of the constitution, enact emergency powers which enable him to govern without the deliberative parliamentary process. Still, checks exist on these powers, which could otherwise give the Presidency disproportionate authority over the legislature. To dissolve the Assembly, the President must consult with the Prime Minister and the Presidents of the two chambers, and may not dissolve the Assembly less than a year after its election. Emergency powers, meanwhile, can only be enacted while parliament is in session (Safran 126).

As a result of the President’s extensive powers, when he has legislative support his authority is almost unchallenged. This has historically been the case when the President is from the same party as the majority of deputies in the legislature. During such times, the President is free to appoint to the position an individual who aligns with his politics or who will submit to his authority. The Prime Ministerial appointee therefore needs to go along with the President or else runs the risk of removal from the position (Safran 126). As a result, so long as the National Assembly aligns with him, the President can push forward his policy agenda and operate as a strong leader. The president can take a more active role and may, in effect, direct government policy. Thus, except for during periods of cohabitation, the Prime Minister’s work is largely in support of the President’s agenda. He plays a distinctly subordinate role in policymaking, is rarely given credit for the achievements of his government, and has been used as a ‘fall guy’ to be replaced when the President loses popularity (Safran 130). When the President has party support in the Assembly, the Prime Minister can expect to have little political discretion or independence. Former Presidents and Prime Ministers have subscribed to this interpretation of their roles during such a time. Indeed, President Jacques Chirac was quoted saying, “I decide, the minister executes” and Prime Minister François Fillon has said, “It is the President who governs” (Safran 131).

This primacy of the President over the National Assembly is a product of de Gaulle’s vision for a strong leader who is above party politics and insulated from parliamentary interference. The Fourth Republic was plagued by government instability, with over twenty governments and seventeen prime ministers presiding during a twelve-year period, and a legislature that was fractured and conflictual (Safran 119). The office of President, being elected by the legislature, was incapable of providing effective leadership. After a succession of politicians lacked the will, acumen, or capability to solve the problem of Algerian independence and with war breaking out which threatened to spill over into France, they looked to Gen. Charles de Gaulle for leadership. In 1958, the constitution for the Fifth Republic, tailor-made for de Gaulle, was adopted. Written by de Gaulle and his advisors, it featured a President who, popularly elected after 1962, would be capable of making decisions and conducting an assertive foreign policy without having to worry about parliamentary interference or ouster (Safran 122). The strength invested in the President, seen in his extensive constitutional and de facto powers, is what enabled de Gaulle to effectively deal with the Algerian problem.

During the first three presidencies, those of Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the system functioned in this manner. However, in 1986, during the presidency of Socialist François Mitterrand, the National Assembly was controlled by the opposing party. This period of ‘cohabitation’ changed the functioning of the system. A delicate form of power sharing began in which the Prime Minister took responsibility for most domestic policies while the President retained authority in foreign affairs, national defense, and had slight influence in internal affairs (Safran 123). This was because the Prime Minister had de facto authority in the legislature, which supported his policies over those of a President from another party. This period of ‘cohabitation’ ended in 1988, returning the Presidency to primacy, but occurred again under Mitterrand’s Presidency in 1993 and again in 1997 during the Gaullist Presidency of Jacques Chirac, both with the same results (Safran 123).

This is in part a result of constitutional ambiguities regarding the powers of the Prime Minister and the President. The constitution stipulates that the Prime Minister is the head of government but in practice it has been, except during times of cohabitation, the President who exercises most of the decision-making authority. This has been enabled largely by the President’s constitutional powers, which have permitted him to influence and direct the legislature even though the Prime Minister is the one who “directs the actions of government.” Other ambiguities exist as well. For example, although the constitution stipulates that the President is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the Prime Minister is given the constitutional directive to be in charge of national defense. Additionally, there is conflict in the Prime Minister’s power to “determine the policy of the nation” and the President’s responsibility to guarantee national independence (Safran 126). Such ambiguities and a lack of clearly delineated powers have produced the flexibility in the system seen by the periods of cohabitation and the extraconstitutionality of the President’s power over the National Assembly.

When drafting the constitution for the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle and his advisors did not anticipate the dilemma of cohabitation. At the onset of the Fifth Republic, the French shared de Gaulle’s dislike of the Fourth Republic and its faction-ridden legislature, desiring a strong leader instead. De Gaulle, as a war-hero, leader of the French government-in-exile, and head of the first provisional government after liberation, commanded enormous respect. In many ways, he represented the hero-savior that resonates so powerfully in French political culture, further adding to his prestige and clout (Safran 148). As a result, the ‘Gaullist’ party which formed around him found widespread support. Many flocked to the banner of de Gaulle, even if they did not embrace Gaullist ideology (Safran 152). Structuring the Presidency for the highly-popular de Gaulle, the authors of the constitution presumed it would allow for strong leadership and unfettered decision-making because of the political circumstances of the time. The parties of the left struggled to work and campaign together, leading to electoral impotence (Safran 155). The Gaullists, meanwhile, were able to dominate the National Assembly, thereby enabling de Gaulle to make full use of the Presidency’s powers. The constitutional system designed for de Gaulle was designed for and worked as intended during this sort of political arraignment, and indeed during the 1970s it seemed as though the French party system had become permanently polarized into a right-wing majority and a left-wing opposition (Safran 155). It was not until 1981 that the left won the Assembly and the Presidency, and not until 1986 that the first period of ‘cohabitation’ began. The framers of the Fifth Republic’s constitution, operating in very different political circumstances than those seen in 1986, thus did not anticipate nor plan for the situation of cohabitation.

A lack of clearly delineated responsibilities and duties for the Prime Minister and the President, as well as extensive constitutional powers granted to the Presidency, has created a system where the President holds most authority over policy making. This strong presidency, unaffected by party politics or interference in the legislature, is what de Gaulle hoped for when drafting the constitution for the Fifth Republic. Yet these same constitutional ambiguities have enabled the system to function differently during times of ‘cohabitation,’ a situation not anticipated by the drafters of the constitution. This is because they tailor-made the Presidency for de Gaulle, an individual who had no trouble commanding the deference and obedience of the legislature. During times of cohabitation, it is instead the Prime Minister who holds de facto authority over the policy-making process, while the President has minimal influence in internal affairs. Still, despite these ambiguities in the constitution, the French Fifth Republic has been able to effectively govern itself through the different forms of power-sharing. As such, the “presidential-parliamentary system” has proven itself to be a stable and successful model of governance.


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1 Comment

  1. Quiche

    Great read, just wondering what the safran source is?

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