French Political Institutions
- Will be examining the executive, the legislature and the civil service.
- System under the fifth republic is a mix of presidential and parliamentary systems, yet the presidency predominates. Hybrid. Strong President, yet with limitations on his/her power.
- Separate elections of the President and the Legislature.
B. The Executive
- Like many of the other countries of Western Europe, France formally has a dual executive, with the President sitting as the head of state and the Prime Minister serving as the head of government. Yet, in reality this is a system that has been historically dominated by the president. While the Prime Minister formally heads the Council of Ministers (the Cabinet), and is supposed to “direct the operation of government” and to “ensure the execution of the laws”, he/she is appointed by the President and can be dismissed by him/her.
- As I have mentioned earlier, under the third and fourth republics, power was concentrated in the legislature and the president had largely symbolic power. This is clearly not the case in the fifth republic.
- However, it is worth noting that since the President and the National Assembly are elected separately, it is possible for each to come from a different political grouping. This is not only possible, but has been the case three times in the last decade, more on this in a moment.
1. The President
Powers of the President
The important point, for the moment, is that the Fifth Republic created a strong presidency to deal with the perceived flaws of the earlier Republics. The French President is now expected to be a visible head of state, sitting “above the parties” and above the fray. He/she is elected directly for a renewable terms of 7 years. In this election, if there is no one candidate that emerges with a majority after the first ballot, then a second round of elections is held, all but the top two vote getters being eliminated. This practice can have interesting ramifications for the final vote tally. For example in the last Presidential election, the Socialist Lionel Jospin (current PM) led after the first round, but after the withdrawal of the other main candidate of the right, Balladur, Chirac was able to win in the second round.
- President appoints the Prime Minister (though the person may not be of his/her personal choosing if parliament is controlled by an opposing faction), confirms the appointment and presides over the cabinet (again, depends on parliament), can dissolve parliament, and can initiate referenda.
- President actually possesses all of the formal powers of the British monarch, can therefore be thought of almost as an elected King/Queen.
- Other functions enumerated by the constitution (Safran): head of state; guarantor of national independence; responsibility for ensuring that the constitution is observed; maintains the functioning of governmental authorities; arbitrates political and institutional conflicts; commander in chief and principal negotiator of international agreements.
-Three extraordinary powers of the French President: (1)with the agreement of the government he/she can submit important pieces of legislation to the public in the form of a referendum (ex. This is how the Presidency came to be directly elected and it was the rejection of an attempt to reform the Senate that caused de Gaulle to resign);. (2) the President can also dissolve parliament and call for new elections. This is especially relevant if the President and the governing coalition in Parliament are of differing opinions. Both de Gaulle and Mitterand used this tactic twice each, and to his displeasure, Jacques Chirac attempted this earlier this year; (3) the President can also invoke emergency powers in the event of grave threat to the Republic. (de Gaulle and Algeria in 1962).
Overall, these extraordinary powers have been used sparingly, but their presence reveals the strength of the Presidency under the Fifth Republic.
The President also has the power to appoint the Prime Minister (drawn from the National Assembly), but this power is circumscribed by the composition of this body. Meaning that if the President is of the right and there is a left majority in Parliament, then appointing one of his own would be untenable. President also appoints the Cabinet.
- Decisions taken by the President alone: Algerian Independence (1962), blocking the Brits from the EU (1963,1967), Efforts to amend the constitution through referendum (1962 - presidential elections, 1967 - reform of the senate), withdrawal from the military wing of NATO, Referendum on European Union (1992).
- de Gaulle and the desire to create an imperial presidency. One of the conditions for his return to political life. Exercised enormous power during his time in office, PM and Cabinet were personal selections and he dominated the French political process. Powers that a British Prime Minister or an American President could only fantasize about. Yet, we should not assume that this was a dictatorial government, de Gaulle was elected on two occasions (if we presume the referendum of 1962 to have been a vote in his favour) and had to deal with a relatively free press. Cannot ignore the strength of his personality and its appeal, which was formidable.
- Successors have all tried to assume imperial power for themselves, to at least some extent. Pompidou, Giscard d’Estaing, Mitterand, and Chirac. Yet, this has been challenged (esp. Since 1986) by changed relations with the parliament and the diminution of Presidential power, it is to this phenomenon that we now turn.
Presidential Relations with the Prime Minister
- Earlier, I mentioned that of the dual heads of the executive, the President was clearly in the superior position. This assertion still stands, but merits some degree of qualification.
For the first 28 years of the Fifth Republic, the President and the majority faction in government came from the same broad political grouping (from 58-81 both were of the political right, from 1981-86 both were from the left). These extended periods of political unity solidified the powers of the President and affected constitutional practices. From the outset of the Fifth Republic to 1986, the President not only formally appointed the Prime Minister, but actually chose who would occupy that position. Even choosing his/her favored candidate over the preference of the National Assembly.
- The precedent that was established was the President was the clear superior in the relationship. He/she could appoint and dismiss pms and cabinet ministers, but also took the lead on matters of policy. The function of the PM was to ensure that the policy preferences of the President were carried out. Has carried over to some degree in the years that have followed.
- The year of 1986 marked a watershed in French politics, while there was a sitting President of the left (Socialist Francois Mitterand), a coalition of the right came to power in the National Assembly. Similar event took place in 1993, and in this year’s election, a leftist coalition gained ascendency in the National Assembly while there was a sitting President of the right.
- Following the 1986 French parliamentary elections, when the rightist coalition came to power, the French experienced a new phenomenon, that of a divided government. This state of affairs has been called cohabitation. This challenged the previous model of governance in France, where the PM was little more than the deputy of the president and greatly complicated the political picture.
- During this time, Mitterand did not explicitly claim any areas of personal responsibility, but maintained personal responsibility for foreign policy and matters of national defense. Carved out these areas as being distinct from parliamentary prerogative. He also stated, that with respect to domestic policy, he would seek to prevent the Parliament from acting against France’s interests. This was an implicit threat against dissolution (which he did not need the assent of the parliament or cabinet to perform) and of refusing to sign governmental legislation (French President does not have the power to veto, but to delay legislation, more on this when we discuss parliament).
- The national assembly, under the governments of present President and then PM, Jacques Chirac, pursued his coalitions objectives on domestic matters, but avoided outright confrontation with the President on matters deemed of personal importance to the President. While the 1988 parliamentary election saw the rightist coalition defeated and a return to more or less unified government, this set an important precedent for relations between the president and the PM in the years to follow. The Presidency was viewed as being less imposing and the Socialist Pms between the years of 1988-93 assumed more power than their predecessors in unified gov’t had dared.
- Since that time, relations between the PM and the President have become more complicated and subject to negotiation, rather than imperial decree, though it should be noted that three different Prime Ministers served under Mitterand in the years of 1988-93, with at least one (Cresson) being removed not of her choosing.
- Two different patterns of power sharing among the executive have emerged since 1958, when the parliamentary majority and the President are from the same faction, there is a clear superior-subordinate relationship between the President and the Prime Minister. Yet, co-operation is still necessary if the President wishes to see his legislative agenda passed. However, when the President and the parliamentary majority are drawn from different factions (co-habitation), the situation becomes more complicated. The President still has the right to dissolve parliament and call a new election, and retains relative autonomy over defense and foreign relations, but requires the co-operation of the PM and parliament to accomplish other goals. Heavily dependant on the personalities involved.
- Decline in Presidential power with the coming and example set by cohabitation. Imperial Presidency of de Gaulle and his first two successors (Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing).
2. The Prime Minister (Premier)
- While, at least prior to 1986, the Premier was clearly subordinate to the President, this does not mean that he/she is a political lightweight. All of the holders of this office have had impressive resumes, and two (Pompidou and Chirac) have gone on to hold the office of the Presidency in later years.
- Need not necessarily be an elected member of the national assembly, though this is becomingly increasingly common.
- PM is more than first among equal within the Cabinet.
- Link between the President and the parliament. Accordingly, must be able to get along with both the President and with the members of the national assembly.
- One of the myriad of functions for the PM has been to ensure parliamentary majority support for the policy preferences of the president and the policy preferences of his/her cabinet. This is especially important as according to the constitution of the Fifth Republic, the government must resign (with the result of new elections being called) when the National Assembly either passes a motion of censure or rejects the program of the government. More on this a little later
- Preparation of the budget.
- Supervision, along with the rest of the Cabinet, of the ministries of the cabinet.
- Premier has to perform a very difficult balancing act, must be able to get along with the president and still be able to illustrate to his/her colleagues that he is not ignoring party wishes.
- Can be removed by either the President or the National Assembly. Rumor that every French Premier begins office by leaving an undated letter of resignation on the President’s desk. Can also be ousted by a vote of confidence in the national assembly.
3. The Cabinet (Council of Ministers)
- Cabinet meets on a weekly basis. Chaired by the President, and are officially called the Council of Ministers. These meeting are sometimes deliberative and may present contrasting points of view. Cabinet decisions and decrees emanate from the council of Ministers.
- Is referred to as the government in your text, revealing the role which it plays in policy making and the day to day operation of the system.
- Membership usually numbers somewhere between 30 and 50. Members are drawn from parliament (seats are taken by an alternate whose name also appears on the ballot), the civil service, intellectuals (university professors), business and banking. Unlike Britain, but like the United States, members need not be from the Parliament, in fact once they become ministers or accept any other government position, they must resign their seats according to the Constitution. Members are formally selected by the Premier, but require the approval of the President.
- Prevalence of graduates of the grandes ecoles, esp ENA, within the system. For example, in the socialist government that assumed power in 1988, 9 out of the 49 cabinet ministers were graduates of the ENA. However, and this is another way in which this differs from Britain, this elite are at least equally likely to be represented in higher numbers during socialist or rightist control of parliament. Possible to argue that this is a meritocratic elite and not based on the ability to pay public school tuition, yet as we have seen this meritocracy tends to favor the upper middle class anyway.
- Cabinet members have the responsibility of supervising the ministries and the civil servants in their particular area, some of the more prominent cabinet positions are: finance, defense, foreign affairs, justice, interior and education; others: culture, agriculture,
- Principle of cabinet responsibility holds: each member is expected to expected to agree with the decisions made by the entire body.
- Within the Cabinet, there are also divisions of rank: (1) Ministers of State, usually five or six people that are granted this title to indicate special relationship with the President or with the Premier under cohabitation; (2) Full Ministers, 20 to 25 offices below, again indicative of status; (3) Junior Ministers, whose portfolios will likely be linked (attached) to those of a full minister. While the full cabinet will meet on a weekly basis, the President (PM under cohabitation) and some of his/her most trusted colleagues (ministers of state) will hold another weekly meeting to discuss policy and get around the potentially unwieldy size of the cabinet.
- Role of the cabinet has also undergone changes since 1986, under cohabitation, it has been the Premier, rather than the President that has largely been responsible for its operation. President still meets with the cabinet and can block the appointment of unacceptable candidates, but under cohabitation, members are more likely to take the lead of the Premier. Become more important under cohabitation, perhaps this is part of an overall trend.
- Dual executive, exercise of power depends on who controls presidency and national assembly, if each is in hands of a different (left or right) faction, then PM will exercise increased influence. Early (prior to 1986) Pms had little influence, since then their role has been increased - even during non-cohabitation periods.
- Power of the President, contrast with the office under the third and fourth republics.
- President has the majority of power in this system - power to dissolve parliament, go around it and put items up for votes by referenda, appoint and dismiss Premiers, supervise (at least) the appointment of cabinet officials.
- Yet, this power is not all pervasive and has come under challenge since 1986. Idea of cohabitation and how it has increased the importance of the other players in the system. Very important concept, esp as the French have voted for this state of affairs twice since then (93 and 97). Perhaps France is moving toward a form of government based on the US model.
- PM is appointed by the President, yet this may not be completely of his/her choosing. If the Parliament is controlled by the other side, then the PM may have a candidate more or less foisted upon him/her. Was the case with Mitterand and Chirac in 1986, where Mitterand made the appointment rather than have it forced upon him. At least the options are constrained by the composition of the National Assembly. Remember, the Premier is the link between the President and this body.
- Cabinet is composed of somewhere between 30-50 members and is responsible for the supervision of the ministries under their care, also plays a prominent role in the initiation of legislation (will come back to that in a few moments). Also increasing in importance since cohabitation began.
- Rise in importance of PM and Cabinet since the 1986 experience with cohabitation. Movement away from the imperial presidency even in unified governments.
- Evolution of the political system - for the first 28 years, it operated rather smoothly, imperial president with a cabinet and pm clearly subordinate and a largely compliant parliament. Last 11 years have been a time of transition for the French. Perhaps one could view this as a another chapter in the long standing debate concerning the centralization of power and this is one way that the French are choosing to vote for its dispersal. Including 1986, the French have had four opportunities in the last 11 years to vote for the national assembly, and on three of those occasions they have opted to elect a parliament that was of a different political orientation that the President.
C. The Legislative Branch
The French Parliament is formally a bicameral system, meaning that there are two different houses within the legislative branch, the national assembly and the Senate. The two are elected in differing fashions and serve different terms of office. Serves as a symbol of representative government.
- As mentioned earlier, in the third and fourth republics, the French government was dominated by the parliament.
- Power of the parliament was carefully limited under the fifth republic. Originally, and until 1995, both houses were limited to sessions of no more than six months in any calendar year, this has been amended to the point where each body can sit for nine months at the present.
I. The National Assembly
- The National Assembly is elected for a five year term based on universal suffrage for those over the age of 18, though it is worth remembering that it can be dissolved at any time by the President. Elections have vacillated between pr and first past the post, presently there are 577 single member districts, with the need for majority votes to capture the district (explain).
- Members are called deputies of the national assembly.
- A Speaker is elected by the member, this person is then referred to as the President of the National Assembly, not to be confused with the President of the Republic or his/her opposite number in the Senate (President of the Senate).
- Behavior of the members is strictly regulated, as one of the chief criticisms of the fourth republic was that continual meddling by the parliament hamstrung the executive. Accordingly, the constitution of the Fifth Republic sought to put an end to this by strengthening the power of the executive and regulating the behavior in parliament.
- Fourth Republic had 19 standing committees, Fifth has 6 in both the national assembly and the Senate: foreign affairs, defense, financial and economic affairs, constitutional and administrative matters, cultural and social affairs, production and exchange. Membership based on the proportion of seats that the Party holds in the body. Ex. Presume Gaullists 20% of NA, 20% of seats on each committee.
- There is usually a great deal of popular support for the members of the National Assembly, as many hold concurrent positions within local government. Of those elected in 1993, more than half were also town mayors, many of the others also held other local offices. There is no law prohibiting the concurrent holding of position in the National Assembly and other positions.
II. The Senate
- The Second house of the French legislature is the Senate, which has 321 members elected for 9 year terms by an electoral college over-represented by the rural areas. Members of this electoral college are largely appointed by small town mayors, so those selected tend to be moderate conservatives in orientation. While there tends to be a rural hostility to social and economic change, one should not assume that these people are knee-jerk conservatives, they have also historically stood in defense of traditional (French) republican values. However, the Senate is most likely to clash with the National Assembly and attempt to delay legislation when the socialists (or a coalition of the left) are in control of the latter body.
- Senate also has the power to introduce legislation.
- It must also approve all bills adopted by the National Assembly. If two houses disagree on a pending bill, then following a joint meeting between members of each body, the government can resubmit the bill to National Assembly for a final vote.
- Power to delay, not veto legislation.
- Unequal relationship between the two houses.
Step 1 - Legislation is introduced either by the Government (PM and Cabinet) or by a member of Parliament.
- The government, meaning the Prime Minister and his/her cabinet controls the proceedings of each house and initiates a vast majority of the legislation under consideration. The government may also request priority on measures that it wishes passed.
- Prior to the introduction of legislation, the government will consult with the Council of State. Its opinions are not binding, but their prestige is high enough that their opinions are usually followed.
Step 2 - Legislation is then sent to the National Assembly and the Senate and then studied by relevant committees in both houses.
- The bill is sent to the Presidents of each house, where they will decide on the amount of time to be allotted for debate and whether or not an ad hoc committee will be formed to study the proposal. Does not happen all that often, perhaps two or three times a year.
- Bills are usually handled by one of the six standing committees mentioned earlier - just about cover the gamut of aspects of French life and legislation. Size of the committees makes them rather unruly, deliberately so, the Fifth republic did not intend to create potential rivals to the government or the executive. Lesson learned under the third and fourth republics.
- Legislation may be amended at this point, usually with the cooperation of the government.
Step 3 - Debate and passage in both Houses.
- The parliament must still grant its assent and pass the laws; yet, the executive has the power to almost bypass parliamentary supervision.
- While all members of the Parliament (Senate and National Assembly) have the right to propose amendments during discussion in parliament, in reality normally only those proposed at the committee stage (committee working with gov’t) are adopted. The government can use the “blocked vote” initiative to force parliament to vote on the bill in its entirety, with only the amendments added that the government has agreed to.
-Also, the Prime Minister may stake the “government’s responsibility” on any bill (or part of any bill) before the National Assembly. If this happens, then the bill is considered as adopted unless a motion of censure is filed within the next 24 hours and passes. A motion of censure requires a petition signed by at least 10% of the members of the National Assembly (58 members) and requires a vote within the next 48 hours after its introduction, this can be successful only if a majority of the deputies vote in favor of the measure. If it passes, then the government is expected to resign, however, the one time that this did pass (more than 30 measures of censure have been tried under the fifth republic), de Gaulle ignored it, registered his confidence in the Prime Minister, and dissolved the National Assembly. This measure was little used during the first 30 years of the Fifth Republic, however it has become more frequently used of late. Between 1988 and 1993, it was used 39 times.
- Remember that the President has the power to dissolve the National Assembly, so, if he/she is working in concert with the Government, can use this as a means of bringing a recalcitrant parliament along.
Step 4 - If the versions passed in each house are the same, then the bill is sent to the Government for its signature, if the versions differ, then the bill is sent to a Joint Committee composed of Members of Both Houses.
- If the differences in each version can be reconciled, then the new version is sent back to the national assembly for vote. However, as mentioned above, if the two are unable to reconcile, then, at the discretion of the government, the bill can still be sent to the National Assembly for a definitive vote.
- Have averaged about 100 laws passed per year.
- Once a measure has been passed by the parliament, there is no real possibility of judicial review.
5. The Constitutionality of the Legislation may be appealed to the Constitutional Council.
However, there is a body in France that serves as a rough equivalent of the US Supreme Court - the Constitutional Council. Either the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, or the Presidents of either the Senate or National Assembly, or a appeal from either sixty deputies or sixty senators, can ask for a review of the constitutionality of the measure by the Council. The constitutional Council is a body of 9+ individuals (the President of the Republic chooses 3, and the presidents of the two houses of parliament each choose another 3, selected for a non-renewable 9 year term, former Presidents of the Republic are also seated on the CC for life) which examines legislation to ensure that it conforms to the French constitution. Whomever is in opposition (left or right) each will frequently ask for review of major legislation (usually about 1/4 of all legislation passed), and about 40% of the time, the Council will find in favor of this appeal. Very seldom will they reject legislation in its entirety, more likely to declare parts unconstitutional, which will give parliament the opportunity to rewrite the legislation. Presence of the Council is also likely to make the executive a little more hesitant when drafting legislation.
Step 6 - The Bill is sent to the President for Signature
- President does not have the power to veto legislation. However, he/she can either ask the government to reconsider this bill (they are forced to comply) or have it heard by the constitutional court.
- Also, while the legislature is the primary law-making body in France, governments can also issue decrees that carry the weight of laws. The constitution provides for parliamentary participation in such areas as taxation, criminal law, conscription, education, civil rights, property law, employment, nationalization of industries, social security, jurisdiction of local communities, conscription. Yet, in such areas as foreign affairs and defense policy, the government has virtually rules by decree - the decision to adopt a nuclear force did not go through the national assembly. However, they are subject to review by the constitutional council.
IV. Summary About the Legislative Branch
- Theory it is bicameral, practice has the National Assembly being the more important of the two branches.
- Laws must pass through both chambers, but the government has the ability to circumvent the Senate.
- Dominance of the executive over the legislative branch. Government can place measures under its own responsibility, requiring a vote of censure to defeat the measure, necessitating its resignation and a new election.
- Yet, legislature is not without its power. Can significantly amend governmental legislation at the committee stage (and beyond, though unlikely to succeed at that point), and due to the fact that many of its reps are also popular local officials, mayors and the like, enjoys a great deal of popularity.
D. The Civil Service
- French bureaucracy has a long a storied tradition. Under Napoleon, the service was professionalized in the sense that selection came to be based on the criteria of merit, rather than inheritance or purchase.
- However, the bureaucracy has also had long traditions of political involvement and is presumed to be supportive of the current regime, rather than independent and impartial. Each change in a system of government would result in sweeping changes to the bureaucracy at all levels. Even under the Fifth Republic, the French civil servants are not expected to be non-partisan (unlike Britain), they may join political parties, and are even allowed to take leaves of absence to run for elected office.
- Bureaucracy has always been a very powerful component of French society, the upper level civil servants are a highly respected group within society (contrast with US). Also, society has tended to presume that their jobs also entail policy making, rather than the simple implementation of policy. As mentioned earlier, the Council of State, the highest organ of the French bureaucracy, plays a strong advisory role in the formulation of policy. May be a certain degree of contempt by the civil servants for the non-experts in Parliament, this is an especially common criticism of the ENA grads that make up a high percentage of the upper echelon of the Bureaucracy. Also frequently tabbed to sit on the Council of Ministers.
- Roughly 25% of the French labour force, including those who work for local level government and the nationalized corporation, are paid by the state. Of this number, roughly half are civil servants. This is a far higher % than in any of the other countries we will be examining. Close connection between the business and the upper-level bureaucrats, reflective of the high degree of gov’t involvement in the French economy. Belief that the profit driven self-interest of the private sector can be reconciled with the common interests of the public. Idea of planned capitalism, activism in channeling financial resources, state contracts, and the protection of French interests.
Also, notion of senior level bureaucrats putting on the slippers late in their careers and joining private business.
- I have mentioned the Council of State several time, perhaps now is a good opportunity to explain its composition and functions.
- Body originated in 1799, was established by Napoleon to deal with disputes between various organs in the civil service, it still does that, but also has the additional tasks of advising the executive on the drafting of laws, appeals from the citizens regarding the actions of the bureaucracy, and the supervision of the implementation of legislation.
- Composed of about 200 upper echelon civil servants who are appointed for secure tenures.
- Yet, these people often flit in and out of the parliamentary and executive brances, they can take leaves to either run for parliament or sit in the Council of Ministers.
- Tremendous influence of the French bureaucracy.