For three seven-year terms, the heartbeat of French politics was an irregular one. For a quarter of a century after 1981, general elections systematically resulted in the defeat of the previous parliamentary majority. In 1986 the Fifth Republic was confronted with an unusual situation. François Mitterrand lost the general election. He chose to remain in power, but had to appoint to Matignon the leader of the main party in the new parliamentary majority, Jacques Chirac. This was called "cohabitation". The new Prime Minister, with the authority of the general election, intended to apply the policies for which the new majority had been elected. Although the President might stay at the Élysée, he would have to stop governing.
De Gaulle's interpretation of the Constitution yielded to a literal one, applied for the first time twentyeight years after its declaration. In other words, during a "cohabitation", the letter of the Constitution became the shared reference point for the main figures of authority, whatever their other differences. The Prime Minister in practice directed the action of the government. It was indeed the government, supported by the National Assembly, that determined and conducted the policy of the nation. The President retained only a few prerogatives in defence and foreign policy. Not least, he was a major opponent, or even the leader of the opposition. François Mitterrand, and later, Jacques Chirac in turn, used this position to undermine their Prime Ministers and gain re-election, the former in 1988 and the latter in 2002.
Two reforms adopted in the early 2000s changed the game. One shortened the presidential term from seven to five years. The other provided for a general election immediately after the presidential election.
Now President and National Assembly were both elected for five years, and the French chose their deputies a few weeks after choosing their President. Following the presidential election, the "momentum" was such that the President's party was virtually guaranteed to win the general election: in 2002 (after the re-election of Jacques Chirac) and 2007 (after the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy), the UMP obtained a majority in the National Assembly. The likelihood of a further "cohabitation" has become practically nil.
The presidential election is the mother of all battles. Whoever wins is almost certain to win the general election a few weeks later and to have a parliamentary majority until the end of their term. Politically, the President is more than ever the head of the majority. In institutional terms, the role of Parliament is reduced to "turning into laws" the commitments the President made to French voters during the presidential campaign. Until 2002, general elections were necessarily held between presidential elections. The Prime Minister's mission was to win them or take responsibility for losing, and thus to protect the Pres ident . With a five-year term, the Head of State's only electoral horizon is the next presidential election. The Prime Minister stands aside, leaving the President to dialogue directly with the French people throughout his term. The way was open to a hyper-presidential Fifth Republic.
Members (deputies) of the National Assembly, the principal legislative body, are directly elected to five-year terms in single-member electoral constituencies by a two-ballot system; all seats are voted on in each election. In order to be elected on the first round, a candidate must obtain an absolute majority (i.e. more than half the votes cast) and a number of ballots equal at least to one quarter of the voters enrolled. If no candidate is thus elected then a second round is required. Only those candidates who have obtained a number of ballots in the first round equal at least to 12.5 % of the voters enrolled, may stand in this second round. In the second round a relative majority is enough for election. Thus the candidate with the highest number of votes is deemed elected. In all cases, the election is held on a Sunday with the second round, when necessary, taking place on the Sunday following the first round.
Senators, whose term was shortened from nine to six years in 2004, are elected indirectly through an electoral college consisting of elected officials in each department (roughly, state). The system introduces a rural, conservative bias in the composition of the Senate. However, the Senate's legislative powers are in practice limited. When the two houses of the legislature disagree, the final decision rests with the National Assembly.
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