The Shrinking French President


By Josep Colomer.


The President of France will never be again what it was. From an elected dictator and a “sacred leader”, he has become a first among equals.

After General De Gaulle established the 5th Republic via coup d’état and a constitution was custom-made for himself, he stated that “There exists no other authority, neither ministerial, nor civil, nor military, nor judicial that is not conferred or maintained by the President.” Socialist Francois Mitterrand, when in opposition, denounced the regime as “a permanent coup d’état”, but when he was elected President, he also found that the Constitution “fits me well.”

However, Mitterrand had to “cohabitate” in two different periods with a Conservative Prime Minister supported by an alternative majority in the National Assembly, as Conservative President Jacques Chirac had to do it with a Socialist Prime Minister and a leftist parliamentary majority.

Political scientist and constitutionalist Maurice Duverger had predicted that the regime would produce an alternation between presidential phases dominated by the figure of the President and parliamentary phases dominated by the Prime Minister. However, the experiences of cohabitation showed that the President always keeps important powers, especially on defense, foreign affairs and justice, legislative veto, and call of referendums, even when his party has to cohabitate.

The actual alternation has been between presidential phases and semipresidential/ semiparliamentary phases with a “dual executive”. So is shown by the foreign representation of France: when the President’s party has a majority in the Assembly, he alone represents France in the summit meetings of the Group of Seven and of the European Council, while both the President and the Prime Minister attend those meetings in periods of cohabitation.

Fifteen years ago, the presidential term was reduced from seven to five years in order to have almost-concurrent presidential and legislative elections that would favor a presidential majority in the Assembly and a unified presidential government. Yet the key word is “almost”, because the legislative election is usually held about two months after the presidential one, and many voters who had to vote for the less bad candidate at the second round of the presidential take the occasion to compensate by voting against the President’s party in the legislative. It had already happened in 1988 when the reelection of Mitterrand was followed by a snap legislative election which produced the appointment of Socialist Michel Rocard as Prime Minister, but in a coalition Cabinet with four center-right and a few independent ministers.

Emmanuel Macron, a disciple of Rocard, will have to do something similar in a couple of months. It is likely that, after the National Assembly election in June, there will be neither one nor two dominant parties, but the major policy decisions will have to be made jointly by the President’s, the Prime Minister’s, and at least two more parties from the center, the center-right or the center-left. The “sacred, indivisible authority entirely given to the President” envisaged by De Gaulle has become a primus inter several pares. Broad sharing of power away from the two extremes may foster pro-European Union consensus and little policy changes. To the benefit of French democracy, Europe, and globalization.

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