Thus far, the political systems I’ve investigated in this series have been constitutional monarchies: systems that divided their powers of state and government between a figurehead monarch and a prime minister, respectively. In France, the power is again divided between two primary political figures – but in this case, neither of the high offices are ceremonial.
The French government exists within a semi-presidential framework. Essentially, this means that the country divvies its highest political influence between a popularly-elected President and the Government, which is in turn headed by the prime minister. For Americans and those in the United Kingdom, this system might seem redundant; why would a nation need both a president and a prime minister? Wouldn’t having two major leaders share power make governing more complicated, rather than less?
In practice, no. France’s model of government works within a system of checks and balances which ensures that its leaders and lawmakers remain accountable to the nation’s government and don’t overstep their authority in pursuit of their own agendas. Let’s unpack this idea by taking a closer look at the branches of government.
Branches of Government
The executive branch consists of an elected president, who serves as head of state, and his appointed prime minister, who acts as head of government. Unlike those heads of states in nominally monarchical systems, however, the president holds considerable political authority within the government and must be elected to the role. After his inauguration, the French president is responsible for appointing a prime minister, lower ministers, ministers-delegate, and secretaries.
However, an elected president cannot simply choose his political allies to serve in these influential offices. Given that the National Assembly has the ability to force the resignation of government, the President must select a government that reflects and will uphold the interests of the parliamentary majority. Thus, a president of a different party than the parliamentary majority will find his power somewhat handicapped; by that same rule, though, a president of the same party will have considerable sway in determining and carrying out the national agenda.
The executive branch is responsible for ensuring that the nation’s armed forces, civil service, and governmental agencies operate productively.
The Parliament of France serves as the nation’s legislative branch and is responsible for passing legislation and setting the nation’s budget. This body is divided into two disparate houses: the National Assembly and the Senate. The National Assembly is considered to be the principle of the two; it consists of 577 elected deputies who each serve five-year terms. As stated earlier, the National Assembly has the ability to pass a motion of censure and force the government to resign; however, this hardly ever happens in practice.
The Senate is the lesser house of Parliament. Comprised of 346 senators elected via an electoral college system to serve nine-year terms, the Senate has considerably less influence than the National Assembly. While the Senate may argue over legislation brought to the parliamentary floor, the National Assembly is given the final say on disputed matters.
The Judicial branch is two-part. The judicial subsection handles high criminal and civil matters, while the administrative manages appeals against the executive branch. Both of these divisions have their own independent court of appeal. Moreover, while France is a unitary nation with national laws, its ruling government is forbidden from intruding into the decisions of smaller administrative departments.
As a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system, France might seem somewhat confusing to those accustomed to one system or the other. However, its careful allocation of power serves a checks-and-balances system which ensures that no single branch of government holds too much power. As only the surface of the French governing system in covered in this this post, I highly recommend that any interested in its history and details conduct further research on the subject – there’s far more to learn!