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Presidents La Cinquième République

Charles de GaulleUNR;1968 UDR 08 Jan 195928 Apr 1969
Alain Émile Louis Marie PoherInd (acting) 28 Apr 196920 Jun 1969
Georges Jean Raymond PompidouUDR 20 Jun 1969 2 Apr 1974
Alain Émile Louis Marie PoherInd (acting) 03 Apr 197427 May 1974
Valéry Giscard d'EstaingUDF 27 May 197421 May 1981
François Maurice MitterrandPS 21 May 198117 May 1995
Jacques René ChiracUMP 17 May 199516 May 2007
Nicolas Paul SarkozyUMP 16 May 200715 May 2012
François Gérard HollandePS 15 May 2012?? May 2017

The President is the most important national figure, the Head of State. Since 1962, the President has been elected by direct universal suffrage, in which he or she must have an absolute majority (half plus one) of votes cast. If this majority is not obtained in the first round of elections, a second round is held eight days later. Only the two candidates who received the most votes may be candidates in the second round.

The President was initially elected for seven years and can stand for a second term of office. 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. The role of the President of the Republic, as defined in the 1958 Constitution, is to:- see that the Constitution is observed; ensure, by his arbitration, the proper functioning of the public authorities and the continuity of the State; be the guarantor of national independence, territorial integrity and observance of treaties; appoint the Prime Minister; promulgate Acts of Parliament and sign the ordinances and decrees deliberated upon in the Council of Ministers over which he presides.

The President may also:- submit to a referendum any government bill which deals with the organisation of the public authorities; declare the National Assembly dissolved, after consulting the Prime Minister and the Presidents of the Assembly and the Senate. It is the President who:- negotiates and ratifies treaties; makes appointments to the civil and military posts of the State and accredits ambassadors. The President is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and is responsible for foreign policy. The President has special powers in the case of a serious and immediate threat (such as the threat of invasion or war).

The Government determines and conducts the policy of the Nation. To enable it to do so, it has at its disposal the civil service and armed forces. The Prime Minister directs the operation of the Government and ensures that Acts of Parliament are implemented. He may delegate certain of his powers to ministers. The National Assembly may raise an issue of the government's responsibility by passing a motion of censure. Where the National Assembly carries a motion of censure, or where it fails to endorse the programme or a statement of general policy of the Government, the Prime Minister must tender the resignation of the Government to the President of the Republic.

The Third and Fourth Republics had been true parliamentary systems: "the government reports to Parliament as a slave reports to his master," said PierreMendès France, Prime Minister in 1955 and a major figure of the Fourth Republic. With the Fifth Republic, all that changed. In the view of Charles de Gaulle, the first task was to put an end to the "regime of parties" and restore the authority of the executive, in order, ultimately, to restore the authority of the State, which he considered to be seriously weakened. The head of government was no longer voted into office by Parliament. Whereas under the Fourth Republic the Prime Minister had been "invested" by the National Assembly, he was now "appointed" by the President of the Republic. Admittedly, the government was still accountable to the Assembly, but a motion of censure could now only be passed by an absolute majority of deputies.

The new constitution was designed both to closely regulate the government's accountability to the National Assembly and to put an end to unstable cabinets. The government was given powers to control legislative procedure. This distrust of Parliament was also expressed in the creation of the Constitutional Council, charged with ensuring that laws complied with the Constitution. Last but not least, the new constitution conferred special powers (i.e. not subject to approval by the Prime Minister and the relevant minister) on the President of the Republic, beginning with emergency powers.

The institutions of the Fifth Republic borrow classic elements both from parliamentary and presidential systems. This has led certain constitutional specialists to class the Fifth Republic as a "semi-presidential" system.

The parliamentary nature of the system is clearly displayed through the existence of a Government led by a Prime Minister who is accountable for his actions before the Chamber elected by direct universal suffrage. To counterbalance this accountability, the Prime Minister may call upon the President of the Republic to dissolve the National Assembly.

On the other hand, the election of the President of the Republic by direct, universal suffrage, his major role in foreign policy and his pre-eminence in the conduct of national policy, outside of periods of cohabitation, have no equivalent in such parliamentary systems as those of the United Kingdom or the Federal Republic of Germany where the role of the Head of State is in fact only a matter of protocol. These elements make the French system closer to the American model.

A new prime minister and government are always announced before the crucial parliamentary elections that follow the presidential election. The new prime minister leads the battle to win the parliamentary elections - it is the job of his PM and the government to win the parliamentary vote. This was always the expectation, and since the reform in 2002 that reduced the presidential term to five years and brought the presidential and parliamentary elections into line, this had become doubly important.

In the French constitutional system, the authority of the Prime Minister derives from the President, not from parliament. All ministers, including the prime minister, are the President's appointees, as in the American presidential system. And it is not permitted for ministers to also be members of parliament, a system that seems rather odd from a British parliamentary perspective.

The constitutional reform of 1962, which introduced the election of the President of the Republic by direct universal suffrage, substantially increased his legitimacy. From being a simple "referee" above party politics, he has become the real leader of a governing majority when the governing majority in the National Assembly coincides with that which elected him. He thus has the final say when a decision must be taken jointly with the Prime Minister and he determines the main direction of the policies to be pursued by the Government. In the case of cohabitation, i.e. when the presidential majority and the parliamentary majority do not coincide, the President of the Republic loses such powers which are only available to him with the agreement of the governing majority.

The Constitution provides the Government with many powers which are not carried out in the same way depending on whether or not the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister belong to the same governing majority or if they are forced into a cohabitation situation. It is the responsibility of the Government to determine and to conduct the policy of the Nation. Thus the Government has a great variety of means available to direct, speed up or slow down the discussion of bills during the legislative procedure before the assemblies. The Prime Minister heads the state civil service and is responsible for national defence. He has the power to make regulations, i.e. to take either general measures outside matters for statute, or specific measures setting down the exact mechanisms for the application of the law (implementation decrees).

General de Gaulle, in moving from the Hôtel Matignon to the Élysée Palace, in no way gave up his actual exercise of executive power; on the contrary, he chose to govern from the Élysée. Only a combination of circumstances made possible this unexpected interpretation, so contrary to "republican traditions": the war in Algeria, first, which had brought General de Gaulle back to power; the exceptional personality of the founder of the Fifth Republic, who possessed, as he put it, "historical legitimacy"; the firm support of the French people, expressed in the constitutional referendum of 28 September 1958, and repeated in three later referenda in 1961 and 1962; and the connivance of the Prime Minister, Michel Debré, who agreed to this new hierarchy between the two executive posts.

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Page last modified: 17-05-2017 17:18:56 ZULU