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Below is an overview of the main political players in France :




Head of state of France and its overseas territories and departments

The President of the French Republic represents the power of the state and plays the central role in the institutions of the 5th Republic. Elected by universal suffrage, the president is a key character in French political life.

Under the constitution of the 5th Republic, the pre-eminent place of the president is established and protected by his statute. The duration of the presidential mandate (until the adoption of the five-year term in 2000, the president was elected for a seven year period), his election by universal suffrage (since 1962) and his political independence (at least, in theory) all go to explain the unique link between the people and the president.

Since 1958, the French head of state has had extended powers which place him at the heart of the institutional system: “The President of the Republic watches over the integrity of the Constitution. By his arbitration, he ensures the regular functioning of the public powers as well as the continuity of the state”. These extra powers were conferred on the president in order that he should better serve and guide the nation. To allow him to do this, the president has the power to: nominate the prime minister and the other ministers of the government (article 8), order consultation in the event of a referendum (article 11), dissolve the Assembly (article 12), assume special powers in the event of a national emergency (article 16) and address the parliament (article 18). The president also has shared powers with the prime minister and other ministers, for the execution of which he requires their countersignature.

These powers, although shared within the framework of a bicephalous executive, have allowed the president to impose himself as the real head of executive power and make the major decisions in national politics, particularly in the president’s “reserved domain” of national defence and foreign affairs. The five presidents that have led the 5th Republic (Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac) have all demonstrated these practices.

In contrast to the United States, however, France has a parliamentary regime, and as such the president can not govern against the will of the National Assembly. This situation was illustrated at three periods when the president and the prime minister came from opposing parties (1986-1988, 1993-1995 and 1997-2002). During these periods, the president reserved a certain number of prerogatives but had to leave control over national policy in the hands of the prime minister, except within his “reserved domain”, where responsibilities were shared.



Définition : The fundamental law that determines the form of the nation, the devolution and the exercise of powers within the state.

France has known a number of Constitutions since the time of the Revolution. The last is that of the 5th Republic, which came into effect on 4 October 1958.

The French Constitution: The preamble of the constitution declares the attachment of the French people to the Rights of Man and the principles of the Declaration of 1789, completed in 1946. France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. The constitution guarantees the equality, in the eyes of the law, of all of its citizens, regardless of origin, race or religion. It respects all beliefs. Its emblems are the tricolour flag and the national anthem: La Marseillaise. Its principle is one of government of the people, by the people and for the people. National sovereignty is the possession of the Constitution, which it exercises through its representatives and by referendum. Suffrage is universal, equal and secret: the electorate consists of all men and women above the age of 18 years with their full civil and political rights.

The Constitution of 1958 reorganised the allocation of powers. It established the parliamentary regime, in which the government is responsible to the parliament. However, the character of the first president, General de Gaulle, and some of his successors gave some the impression that it was, in fact, a presidential regime. The President of the Republic has considerable powers: he exercises functions of representation, safekeeping and arbitration. He appoints the prime minister and is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. He can call a referendum, dissolve the National Assembly and exercise special powers in the event of a serious crisis (article 16). The government determines and directs national policy; it is directed by the prime minister. Responsible for the defence of the nation, the prime minister ensures the implementation of the law, exercises regulatory power and appoints civil and military posts. Ministerial instability, which was the chronic affliction of the 3rd and 4th Republics, was avoided thanks to the establishment of links between the government and the parliament. When the National Assembly adopts a motion of censure, because it disapproves of the programme or the general policy of the prime minister, the prime minister must present the president with the resignation of the government.

Parliament consists of the consists of the National Assembly and the Senate. The former is elected by direct universal suffrage, the latter by indirect universal suffrage. Since 1996, the parliament is in open session for a period of nine months and can be assembled for an extraordinary session at the request of the prime minister or a majority of members of the National Assembly.

Legislation is voted by the parliament. Article 34 of the Constitution of 1958 enumerates the matters that fall into the domain of the law, and article 37 specifies that all other matters fall into the regulatory domain. The government can, for the implementation of its programme, request the parliament to pass by ordinance measures that would normally come into the domain of the law; however the authorisation will only be for a limited time.

Legislative initiative resides with both the prime minister and the members of parliament. Bills and proposals, after being examined by specialist committees overseen by Assembly members, are voted on by the deputies of the Assembly and by the Senate. In the event of disagreement between the Senate and the Assembly, a joint commission is established to try to find an acceptable compromise on the text – it is the Assembly, however, that has the final word. There is also a specific procedure for voting on “organic” and financial laws.

The Constitution of 1958 is divided into fifteen titles. After the first five, the essential content of which is explained above, it deals with the following domains: international treaties and agreements (title VI), in which article 55 dictates that once properly ratified or approved, from the day of publication their authority takes precedence over national laws; the Constitutional Counsel (title VII); judicial authority (title VIII); the High Court of Justice (titre IX); the Economic and Social Counsel (title X); territorial bodies (title XI); community (title XII); association agreements (title XIII); revision of the Constitution (title XIV); transitional provisions (title XV).

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