The French presidency: a user's guide

1st May 2007, Comments 0 comments

May 2, 2007 , Under the terms of the country's Fifth Republic constitution, the president of France is one of the most powerful elected leaders in the world.

May 2, 2007 

Under the terms of the country's Fifth Republic constitution, the president of France is one of the most powerful elected leaders in the world.

Devised by Charles de Gaulle in 1958 in order to boost the authority of the head of state, the constitution declares the president to be the "guarantor of national independence" who "assures ... the proper functioning of public powers and the continuity of the State".

The president is head of the armed forces -- with control over France's sea- and air-based nuclear arsenal -- and every July 14 officiates at the military parade down the Champs Elysees in Paris.

He or she names the prime minister, chairs cabinet meetings and can dissolve the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament. Under Article 16, the president can declare a state of emergency and rule by decree in the event of a national crisis.

Under Article 64 of the text, the president is guarantor of the independence of the judiciary, and presides over its governing body, the Higher Council of the Magistrature (CSM). Under Article 17, he or she has power to issue pardons.

In theory France's Fifth Republic is a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, with a government -- led by a prime minister and answerable to the National Assembly -- which "determines and conducts the policy of the nation".     In practice, powers have been increasingly consolidated in the hands of the president -- especially after the 1962 constitution change under which the president was directly elected by the people. In the original constitution, he was chosen by an electoral college.

Prime ministers in France thus tend to be loyal agents of the president's rule.

The only time prime ministers establish their independence is when there is a majority in the National Assembly that opposes the president. In these periods of "cohabitation" -- there have been three of them -- the president is forced to take a step back from domestic affairs.

In order to reduce the likelihood of "cohabitations", in 2000 the constitution was changed to reduce the president's mandate from seven to five years. Five years is also the mandate of the legislature, and the principle is that the two terms should run concurrently.

*sidebar1*This is why the presidential elections on Sunday will be followed in June by elections for a new National Assembly. The expectation is that the new president will get a supporting majority in the legislature, though there is no guarantee.

The president elected on May 6 -- Nicolas Sarkozy or Segolene Royal -- will be the 23rd in French history and the sixth in the Fifth Republic.

The country's first president was Napoleon's nephew Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who was elected in 1848 and declared himself emperor four years later. At 40 when he took office, he was also the youngest president in French history.

Under the Third and Fourth Republics (1871-1940 and 1946-1958), presidents were chosen by parliament and their powers were limited.

The presidents of the Fifth Republic were Charles de Gaulle (1958-1969); Georges Pompidou (1969-1974); Valery Giscard d'Estaing (1974-1981); Francois Mitterrand (1981-1995); and Jacques Chirac (1995-2007).

De Gaulle resigned during his second term and Pompidou died in office. Mitterrand's 14 years was the longest ever served by a French president.

France's political institutions have come under growing critical scrutiny in recent years, and there have been calls to make the president more accountable.

Neither Sarkozy nor Royal favours wholesale reform. However they both want to restrict presidents to two terms in office, and limit their powers to make nominations to state offices. Sarkozy wants the president to have the right to explain himself before the National Assembly.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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