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Government of the Fifth Republic

The final years of the Fourth Republic were marked by the paralysis of the system and by its inability to deal with the major challenge posed by decolonization. Faced with a rising in Algeria, which was demanding its independence and the threat of an insurrectional takeover of power by French military leaders in Algiers (May 13, 1958), Ren Coty, the President of the Republic, called upon General de Gaulle, who had, at that stage, withdrawn from political life, to form a new Government. The threatened coup led the parliament to call on General de Gaulle to head the government and prevent civil war.

The Constitution of October 4, 1958 was framed in reaction to the excesses of the assembly system and to the Fourth Republic which was unable to deal with the crises created by decolonization. General de Gaulle became Prime Minister in June 1958 (at the beginning of the Fifth Republic) and was elected President in December of that year.

The Fifth Republic was established by General de Gaulle with the Constitution of 4th October 1958. The Constitution is the legal cornerstone of the Republic. It delegates powers, and has the specific task of defining the functions and relationship of the executive and the legislature. Since the Constitution was approved by French voters in a referendum in September 1958, it has been revised ten times. It can be modified by referendum or by Parliament (the National Assembly and Senate combined to form Congress).

The Constitution of the Fifth Republic declares that "France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs." The Constitution also states the attachment of the French people to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 and to the principle of national sovereignty.

It lists the symbols of that sovereignty as follows:- The national emblem shall be the blue, white and red tricolour flag. The national anthem shall be the Marseillaise. The motto of the Republic shall be "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity". The language of the Republic shall be French.

There is separation of powers between the three branches of government - the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. But the three are not equal and in political terms the executive, which includes the President of the Republic, is the most powerful.

The constitution of the Fifth Republic was approved by public referendum on September 28, 1958. It greatly strengthened the powers of the executive in relation to those of Parliament. Under this constitution, presidents were elected directly for a 7-year term. Beginning in 2002, the presidential term of office was reduced to 5 years, and a constitutional reform passed on July 21, 2008 limits presidents to two consecutive terms in office. The next presidential and legislative elections are scheduled for 2012.

The main components of France's executive branch are the president, the prime minister and government, and the permanent bureaucracies of the many ministries. The president names the prime minister, presides over the cabinet, commands the armed forces, and concludes treaties. The president can submit questions to a national referendum and can dissolve the National Assembly. In certain emergency situations, with the approval of Parliament, the president may assume dictatorial powers and rule by decree. Led by a prime minister, who is the head of government, the cabinet is composed of a varying number of ministers, ministers-delegate, and secretaries of state. Traditionally, presidents under the Fifth Republic tended to leave day-to-day policy-making to the prime minister and government, and the 5-year term of office was expected to make presidents more accountable for the results of domestic policies. Nicolas Sarkozy has been a hands-on manager and policymaker.

Parliament meets for one 9-month session each year. Under special circumstances the president can call an additional session. Under the constitution, the legislative branch has few checks on executive power; nevertheless, the National Assembly can still cause a government to fall if an absolute majority of the total Assembly membership votes to censure. The Parliament is bicameral, with a National Assembly and a Senate. The National Assembly is the principal legislative body. Its deputies are directly elected to 5-year terms, and all seats are voted on in each election. Senators are chosen by an electoral college and, under new rules passed in 2003 to shorten the term, serve for 6 years, with one-half of the Senate being renewed every 3 years. (As a transitional measure in 2004, 62 Senators were elected to 9-year terms, while 61 were elected to 6-year terms; subsequently, all terms will be 6 years.)

The Senate's legislative powers are limited; the National Assembly has the last word in the event of a disagreement between the two houses. The government has a strong influence in shaping the agenda of Parliament, although the constitutional reform passed in July 2008 granted new authority to the Parliament to set its own agenda. The government also can declare a bill to be a question of confidence, thereby linking its continued existence to the passage of the legislative text; unless a motion of censure is introduced and voted, the text is considered adopted without a vote. The constitutional reform passed in July 2008 limited the process to the vote of the national budget, the financing of the social security, and to one bill per session of the Parliament. As of September 2009, impact assessment is mandatory for all draft laws going to the Council of State and the Parliament.

A distinctive feature of the French judicial system is that the Constitutional Council protects basic rights when they might be potentially violated by new laws, and the Council of State protects basic rights when they might be violated by actions of the state. The Constitutional Council examines legislation and decides whether it conforms to the constitution. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, it considers only legislation that is referred to it by Parliament, the prime minister, or the president. Moreover, it considers legislation before it is promulgated.

The Council of State has a separate function from the Constitutional Council and provides recourse to individual citizens who have claims against the administration. The Ordinary Courts--including specialized bodies such as the police court, the criminal court, the correctional tribunal, the commercial court, and the industrial court--settle disputes that arise between citizens, as well as disputes that arise between citizens and corporations. The Court of Appeals reviews cases judged by the Ordinary Courts.

Traditionally, decision-making in France has been highly centralized, with each of France's departments headed by a prefect appointed by the central government. In 1982, the national government passed legislation to decentralize authority by giving a wide range of administrative and fiscal powers to local elected officials. In March 1986, regional councils were directly elected for the first time, and the process of decentralization continued, albeit at a slow pace.




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