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Analyzing French Political Culture

Political culture describes a set of political values, beliefs, and attitudes widely shared throughout a society, and these influence the way the members of that society perceive the world around them and respond to it (notes 9/3). As a result, understanding a polity’s political culture is vitally important to understanding the political behaviors of that polity. This is very apparent in the case of France. French nationalism, a product of pride in their history and culture, has prompted the French to assert themselves internationally but has also brought them into conflict with immigrant subcultures. Secularism is integral to French political culture as well, and also brings the French into conflict with their politicizing subcultures. The French are prone to ‘hero-worship,’ giving charismatic individuals enormous amounts of power, but this tempered by a distrust of authority. Their conflictual political culture has manifested itself in the numerous changes of government type experienced in modern times. The French hold public service in high esteem, and have distinct expectations about what the state should do for them.

Nationalism is undoubtedly one of the most important parts of the French political culture. The birthplace of prominent thinkers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Turgot, and Diderot, France can be credited with beginning the age of Enlightenment. The French began the tradition of revolution in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. They defined and cultivated the concept of the ‘citizen’ and developed the idea that citizens have inalienable rights. During the Revolution and under Napoleon, they fundamentally changed the nature and character of the modern state, altering the international system forever. The French can therefore take extreme pride in France’s international prestige, culture, and intellectual accomplishments. There is a sense of belonging to the French nation and its vibrant history. This reflects itself in many ways in contemporary France. Proud of their rich artistic history, the French are eager to sponsor the arts and culture. To achieve that, the French government has a Minister of Culture in charge of promoting, protecting, and support the arts in France and abroad (notes 10/31). Some in France are worried about the excessive influence of mass culture and the ‘pollution’ of French art, cinema, culture and language by ‘Americanisms’ (Safran 118). To combat this and preserve France’s culture, the French government has placed limitations and restrictions on what foreign films can be shown in theaters (notes 10/31). Recognizing the enormous historical influence France has had on intellectual thought and philosophy, the French retain a culture of intellectualism now devoid in many other societies (notes 10/31). French nationalism is a result of their great pride in France’s accomplishments, and reflects itself today in a continuing commitment to creating and spreading French culture.

French nationalism has also significantly impacted the way the French act in the international arena. Throughout its history, France has profoundly impacted the international system and the states in it. The French Revolution introduced concepts such as popular sovereignty which forever changed the way states behave and are legitimized; by bringing down the ‘Ancien Régime,’  the French can be credited with ushering in the modern era of statehood (notes 10/29). Under Napoleon, France conquered and dominated much of Europe, leaving behind a heritage of reforms, such as the Napoleonic Code, which continue to influence the world to this day (Safran 115).  The French have had much influence on the world, adding to their national pride. This pride has manifested itself in an assertive foreign policy, perhaps even more assertive since France lost its overseas empire and status as a global power. One of the main hopes of the Gaullists was to reassert France’s global role and rediscover its grandeur. de Gaulle began France’s program of nuclear weapon development and,  protesting what he perceived to be the United State’s overly domineering role in NATO, withdrew France from the alliance in 1966. He did so arguing that he had to preserve French independence in world affairs, a reflection of the pride the French feel in their country’s historic global influence (Safran 148).  The French desire to influence the international system is also reflected in its relations with other European nations. Seeing it as a way to increase French power and influence in global politics, France has played an important leadership role in creating, expanding, and sustaining the European Union (notes 10/29). This is because they hope to shape that supranational organization, and in turn the global system, with French values. France’s history with human rights has also played an important part in influencing the international system (notes 10/31). The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was a document instrumental to the creation of human rights, and most French consider a commitment to human rights a vital part of their political culture (Safran 120). The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1960 European Convention on Human Rights, and the 2000 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union owe their existence to the precedent set by the French and their commitment to human rights.

However, the strong sense of nationalism and belonging to the nation has also created serious tensions with France’s subcultures. These subcultures engage in different practices, hold different values, and follow different faiths. They represent a departure from the values and norms which the French hold with such regard and pride. As they increasingly politicize, they influence the political system and its policies with their perspectives and values more and more. It is because of this that there have been significant instances of violence and discrimination aimed at those subcultures (Safran 110). The paranoia about the ‘other’ is reflected in the growth of xenophobic, racist, and anti-immigrant groups such as the Front National, which has entered mainstream politics because of support for those positions. Meanwhile, the economic, political, and cultural marginalization that these subgroups have felt as a result of these tensions were released in 2005, when Muslim and African immigrants engaged in massive riots. Many of these rioters were unemployed, lived in ghettos, and saw other way out of their isolation and neglect (Safran 120). To combat the conflicts between the dominant political culture and the subcultures of France, the National Assembly has passed a number of antidiscrimination laws penalizing ethnic, racial, and religious hatred while also making efforts to acculturate minorities and integrate them into mainstream society (Safran 112).

Perhaps one of the most pervasive aspects of French political culture is their secular outlook. The intense secularist sentiments in France stem from the state’s history with religion. Following the Protestant Reformation, bitter rivalries and struggles were fought between Catholics, supported by the ruling elite, and the Protestant Huguenots. The consolidation of centralized Bourbon rule coincided with the firm establishment of Catholicism as the state religion. The church intimately supported the monarchy, and in return was rewarded with state support. As a result, anti-monarchical, republican sentiment became closely intertwined with anticlericalism (Safran 111). Religion was seen as a tool of the elites to keep the masses complacent and, in turn, oppressed. The French Revolutionaries tried to do away with religion, and during the Third Republic the commitment to secularism made considerable headway. The hold of Catholicism, meanwhile, gradually weakened because of industrialization, the rise of a new working class, and social changes. The French, with their rich history of Enlightenment thought, associated more closely with reason than superstition and faith (Safran 111). As a result, in 1905, France became a constitutionally secular state. Today, the doctrine of ‘Laïcité,’ the separation of church and state, plays a prominent role in French society. The state has outlawed any outward demonstration of faith in public spaces, banning icons such as the cross and the Yakima. Talk of religious affiliation is taboo, and the practice of religion is seen as an private affair. It is also constitutionally prohibited from recognizing any religion and, except in the case of the province of Alsace, providing religious organizations with funds (Safran 111).

As has been the case with their strong sense of national identity, the French commitment to secularism has brought them into conflict with the influx of Muslim immigrants and the recent politicization of that subculture. There is a perception that practicing Muslims adhere to a “fundamentalist” religion at odds with French secularism, and therefore pose a challenge to French values (Safran 112). In an attempt to deal with the influx of Muslim immigrants, the French government established the ‘French Council on the Muslim Faith,’ which represents a variety of Muslim organizations and functions as an intermediary between them and the state.  In 2011, to counter the perceived encroachment of Islam into the secular French state, the government banned the wearing of Islamic headgear such as the niqab and burqa (Safran 112). The French culture of secularism has thus contributed to the hostility aimed against religious immigrant populations, whose outward practice of religion is seen as conflicting with French values. This conflict in values leads to a perception of these subcultures as the ‘other,’ and again it is from this perception that some groups have framed and found support for their nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric.

Hero-worship has played an important role in French history, and as a part of French political culture has played helped shape the French state. The French have historically been enamored with charismatic, powerful individuals, looking to them for leadership and guidance and occasionally granting them enormous powers over society (Safran 118). In the confused aftermath of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, a brilliant war hero, was seen as the ‘savior’ France desperately needed. His position as ‘Emperor’ was legitimized by plebiscites; the people of France granted him his dictatorial powers. With them, he fundamentally changed the administration of the French state and dramatically altered the international system through the Napoleonic Wars. Louis Napoleon, Napoleon’s nephew, also benefited from the French culture of hero-worship. His presidency, and eventually his declaration of Empire, were derived and legitimized by the support of the people (Safran 116). The culture of hero worship is also clearly seen in the case of General Charles de Gaulle. A prominent war hero of World War 2, it was to de Gaulle that the French looked for the leadership needed to solve the Algerian crisis. Employing popular referendums, de Gaulle instituted the Fifth Republic, making sweeping changes and reforms to the French political system His foreign policy decisions reasserted France as a power of significance in the international arena (Safran 122). History has shown that the French are inclined to give their ‘heroes’ enormous amounts of influence and control over society and the state. The French culture of hero-worship has therefore enabled charismatic individuals to play enormously important roles in shaping and guiding France’s development.

However, this culture of hero-worship has been tempered by a culture of rebellion and suspicion towards authority. It was in France, after all, that the tradition of revolution was established. Because of this aspect of their culture, the French have historically been inclined to replace and dramatically change their political order. French citizens have frequently participated in uprisings and revolution, with the French Revolution of 1789, 1848, and the Paris Commune of 1871 serving as powerful examples (Safran 115). Large segments of the population have traditionally adhered to political ideologies and parties oriented towards the replacement of the existing political order (Safran 115). The French culture of suspicion towards authority continues in some ways to this day. Many French citizens feel that their politicians are little or not at all concerned with what they think (Safran 119). The judiciary in France, as a result, is growing increasingly independent; the Constitutional Council now serves as a medium through which citizens can challenge legislation and, therefore, the decisions of their politicians. Many elected officials have also been subjects of investigation and targets of indictment for the misappropriation of public funds and other legal violations, a further reflection of the French distrust and antipathy towards authority (Safran 119). This culture of suspicion further manifests itself in voting behavior. About half of adults do not vote, and many of those who do tend to vote against the government, as can be seen in the failure of the 2005 referendum on the European constitution (Safran 119).

This is all a manifestation of the conflictual nature of French political culture. This was reflected in the inability of the French to create a political formula that would satisfactorily resolve the conflict between the executive and the legislature, the state and the individual, centralism and localism, and the representative and ‘direct democracy’ (Safran 115). The conflictual nature of the French led to the frequent toppling of governments in the Third and Fourth Republics and contributed significantly to their instability and inability to govern (Safran 117). It is a direct cause of the quick succession of governments and political orders that modern France has experienced – monarchy, republics, empires, monarchy, and republics again – all with drastically different concepts of the proper division and function of governmental authority. The conflictual French political culture, along with the culture of rebellion and suspicion towards authority, are thus the reasons why France has experienced much political turmoil and change. It has not been until the Fifth Republic’s stability, a product of de Gaulle which again shows the influence an individual can wield because of hero-worship, that most French have accepted their political institutions as legitimate. Even then, it is only because of the way the Fifth Republic functions that the conflictual political culture has been prevented from interfering with effective governance.

An important aspect of French political culture is the French reverence for public service. This is clearly evident in the fact that the state employs more than 3 million and constitutes about 15 percent of France’s total labor force. A major factor contributing to this reverence is the prestige attached to the civil service, which attracts many of France’s most talented and intelligent individuals (Safran 119). Indeed, a variety of elite national schools, called the “grandes écoles,” train specialized civil servants. These schools have intensely competitive entry and graduation requirements, but train the majority of the civil service’s higher administrative personnel. Among the graduates of these institutions are two presidents, Chirac and Giscard d’Estaing, and several prime ministers. Members of the cabinet are frequently selected from the higher civil service, often beings graduates of these prestigious schools (notes 10/31). These schools are very difficult to get into, allowing only the most talented to attend. However, it is then the graduates of these schools who populate the higher administration of the French civil service and the government. As a result, France is governed and administered by a skilled cadre of highly talented individuals. French reverence for public service has therefore endowed France with an administrative system staffed with talent and given prestige. While in some societies the most talented individuals often enter careers in non-state sectors, in France they enter into the civil service, contributing their efforts directly to the governance and betterment of the French state.

This culture of public service is intertwined with French nationalism and, in turn, leads to a distinctly French perception of the state. Though the French have been strongly critical of their regime, they have a strong sense of belonging to the nation and have high expectations of what the state should do for them (Safran 119). From the Enlightenment, they developed the concept of the “citizen” and that the citizen has certain inalienable, natural rights due to them. It is from this idea that many rights and benefits have been granted to the citizens of the state, such as the 35-hour work week and generous paid leave (notes 10/31). It is also from this idea that the French express a distinct willingness to fight for those rights and solidarity with those doing so. Strikes are common in France, with recent examples seen in the 1995 and 1996 strikes by transport works protesting threatened social security cuts and the 2006 strikes against a government bill making it easier for employers to lay off young entrants into the labor force (Safran 119). These strikes are also reflections of the French culture of rebellion against authority. While many in the other Western societies see the actions of striking workers as an annoyance, the French support their cause. Their expectations of the state make them unwilling to have traditional welfare entitlements called into question. This is clearly seen in a 2004 poll in which 74 percent of respond ants opposed the privatization of hospitals, 85 percent opposed an increase in cost sharing by patients, 78 percent opposed raising the retirement age, and 81 percent opposed easing protections against layoffs (Safran 120).

Political culture manifests itself in the way a polity thinks and behaves, and this is clearly the case with the French. French nationalism has led to an array of domestic policies aimed at protecting French culture and foreign policies intent on spreading it. Secularism in France has removed religion from the public eye, but brings the dominant political culture into conflict with religious immigrant subcultures. Charismatic individuals have played an enormously influential role in shaping the history of France, and have been thrust into positions of power by the French tendency for ‘hero-worship’. However, their distrust of authority and their conflictual nature has led to instability in government and numerous changes in government type. The French hold public service with high esteem, and it is from the civil service that many of France’s top political elites are chosen. Finally, their distinct expectations of what the state should do for them has led to a solidarity with strikers uncommon in most polities. As can be seen, French political culture manifests itself in the domestic and international policies and attitudes of the French people and government. It is what makes the members of this society so distinctly and uniquely ‘French.’

What Makes the French Fifth Republic Stable?

During the Fourth Republic, the French political system experienced much instability and volatility. Governments were frequently brought down, resulting in paralysis and inefficiency in governance. After successions of politicians were unable to solve the problem of Algeria, they looked to leadership of Gen. Charles de Gaulle. In 1958, under a constitution tailor-made for him, the Fifth Republic was established. The National Assembly was weakened in its ability to paralyze and destabilize governance by rules and changes in procedure. The office of President was strengthened with oversight over the legislature and, popularly elected by 1962, responsible to the people. These structural features, among others, have served to stabilize the volatility of the previous Fourth Republic.

The French Fourth Republic was established after World War 2, but maintained most of the features of the Third Republic. As such, it was dominated by an overly powerful legislature and, like was the case with the Third Republic, this proved to be highly volatile. Twenty presidents and seventeen prime ministers were in office over a twelve-year period, demonstrating the excessive instability of government. An excess of parties divided interests rather than aggregating them, and ambitious, undisciplined deputies easily managed to topple governments hoping to assume ministerial office. Although the National Assembly was supreme, it too could not provide effective leadership. (Safran 117).

When drafting the constitution for the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle and his advisers tried to create a strong government which would not be plagued by the volatility of the past republics. Such a government, they hoped, would be able to make decisions without having to worry about excessive parliamentary interference or being brought down. To do so, they created a system with a mixture of a powerful executive and weakened legislature. Though initially elected through an electoral college, since 1962 the President has been elected through a popular vote (Safran 122). The President is thus chosen by and is responsible to the people. This direct responsibility to the masses, a manifestation of the French Jacobin tendency, is essential to the stability of a country with such a conflictual culture.

To ensure stability in government, the Presidency of the 5th Republic is endowed with what has been called ‘near-monarchical’ powers and has numerous checks over the legislature. He may ask the legislature to reexamine all or a part of any bill he does not like. He is given the ability to interpret the constitution, and thus may submit to the Constitutional Council an act of parliament or treaty of doubtful constitutionality. The President may also submit legislative proposals to the public in the form of referenda, circumventing the legislative process. Significantly, the President may dissolve the National Assembly and call for new elections. He is also given “emergency powers,” to be used during times of crisis, which allows to govern without time-consuming, deliberative parliamentary processes (Safran 126). This extensive political authority has enabled the President of the Fifth Republic to serve in the manner de Gaulle envisioned: as a ‘mediator’ whose oversight of the legislature prevents the instability and paralysis that plagued the past republics, and whose ability to influence the policy-making process enables him to govern decisively.

The President’s powers extend beyond the legislative process. He has a wide range of appointive powers, being able to appoint without interruption the Prime Minister, military officers, political advisers, and some members of several judicial bodies. The ability to appoint the Prime Minister, who serves as the head of the National Assembly, has helped maintain government stability. When the President is from the same party of the majority of delegates, his choice of the Prime Minister is likely more agreeable to the Assembly. As a result, the government is less likely to be brought down and its policies more readily accepted. The President also retains the power to appoint ambassadors and other high civilian personnel, to receive foreign dignitaries, sign bills and promulgate laws and decrees, issue pardons, preside over cabinet sessions and send messages to parliament — all powers traditionally associated with chiefs of state (Safran 126). The President is thus provided with not only political authority, but symbolic authority as well. He represents the “heart and soul” of France, clearly setting and directing the nation’s agenda.

The National Assembly of the Fifth Republic is significantly less volatile than those of past republics, though its structure remains largely unchanged. This is a result of a number of changes in its function. To prevent a large number of parties from participating in the Assembly, which served to divide interests in the Fourth Republic and contributed to its instability, the number of deputies needed to constitute a party was raised to twenty from fourteen. This forces small contingents of deputies to align with larger ones, thereby aggregating interests. The decision­­-making role of the Assembly is also limited, and the areas for which it may pass legislation are clearly enumerated in the constitution. What the Assembly may not legislate for is done through decrees, ordinances, and regulations, all produced by the government (Safran 133). Limiting the powers of the Assembly limits its ability to influence and, in turn, paralyze the governance of the state. The government may also ask the legislature to delegate to it the power to issue decrees in areas normally under parliamentary jurisdiction, thereby providing further ways for the government to prevent legislative paralysis. The government is able to decide how much time is allocated to debate on parts of a bill, what bills are to be discussed, and can prevent amendments to a bill. Members of the legislature may not filibuster (Safran 133). These rules also help prevent legislative gridlock, enabling effective and efficient governance.

The ability for the Assembly to bring down the government has also been significantly curtailed. In the Fourth Republic, members of standing committees in the legislature often offered counterproposals to government bills designed to embarrass the government and bring it down. The constitution of the Fifth Republic thus significantly curtails the amount of standing committees permitted, forces them to work within carefully limited periods of time, and forbids them from producing substitute bills (Safran 134). This has helped insulate the government from the embarrassment of substitute bills, which in the past had resulted in their collapse. Motions of censure, which can also bring down the government, are also more difficult to pass in the Fifth Republic. They require the signatures of at least one-tenth of all deputies in the Assembly, who may only cosponsor one such motion during each parliamentary session. A ‘cooling-off’ period of forty eighty hours must precede the vote of such a motion, and the motion only carries if an absolute majority of the entire membership of the Assembly supports it. That these rules have reduced the volatility of government can clearly be seen in the fact that only one motion of censure, occurring in 1962, has passed in the Fifth Republic (Safran 135). The ability for the legislature to contribute to governmental instability has thus been significantly curtailed by rules and regulations placed on the legislature’s committees and motions of censures, rules which in effect help protect the government from being brought down.

Deputies in the Fourth Republic would be willing to unseat a government with the hope that they would then get a ministerial position themselves in the next cabinet. However, if they were to then be ousted from that cabinet, they would still retain their Assembly seat. As a result, deputies frequently tried to topple governments for their own possible political gain. Additionally, the accumulation of many positions tended to undermine a deputy’s ability to devote time and energy to each individual position, creating inefficiency in government. To counteract the tendency to bring down governments in search for ‘portfolios’, the Fifth Republic constitution requires deputies to resign their Assembly seats when entering the cabinet. Furthermore, parliament passed a law in 1985 to limit the accumulation of elective offices to no more than two (Safran 137). Though the ‘incompatibility’ and ‘cumulation’ rules are often violated, they try to deter deputies from bringing down governments and accumulating too many offices. They were designed around the presumption that deputies won’t jeopardize their own seat in the Assembly for a cabinet position, and are thus less likely to try to bring down a government and its cabinet. By limiting the amount of positions a deputy can hold, he or she will be able to devote more time to effectively serving the positions already held. As a result of these rules, the government is made less volatile and more effective. Finally, ministerial appointments have become apolitical, with highly skilled members of the elite civil service often being called on to serve (notes 10/31). The professionalization within the cabinet, along with its apolitical nature, have further undermined the desire and ability of deputies within the National Assembly to seek ministerial office for ‘portfolio’ and political gain.

Another change in the Fifth Republic which stabilized the volatility of the Fourth Republic involved the electoral system. In the Fourth Republic, deputies were elected to the National Assembly through the system of proportional representation. This system enabled many parties, including those on the fringe of the spectrum, to enter the legislature (Safran 150). This further served to divide interests rather than aggregating them, making it near impossible for governments to build majority support and govern effectively. To combat this, the electoral system adopted in 1958 was based on the single-member district, in which a single candidate must obtain an absolute majority of votes cast in his or her district to secure victory (Safran 151).  This effectively cut down the number of parties represented in the Assembly, therefore making it easier for governments to command legislative support and coalition-build. Though the details of the electoral system are not fixed by the constitution but rather are changed by organic law, the single-member district election has remained in practice except for a brief period in the 1980s.

Changes to the political system in the Fifth Republic have stabilized the volatility which plagued the Fourth Republic. The popularly-elected Presidency is endowed with extensive powers and has often wielded de facto authority over the legislature, enabling it to govern without ouster or parliamentary interference. The National Assembly, meanwhile, has been curtailed in its ability to bring down governments through checks on censure proceedings and the incompatibility rule. The implementation of single-member district elections has significantly cut down on the number of parties in the Assembly, enabling governments to garner greater legislative support and therefore govern more effectively. Because of these structural changes, the Fifth Republic has been much more stable than those of the past. Its institutions are not paralyzed in their ability to deal with the issues and problems facing France and, as a result, are now widely accepted by the French citizenry.

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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