Some Notes on the French Political System

Towards the end of April the French will go to the polls to vote for their next president. The race, as far as I can tell, has been an unpredictable and exciting one, characteristic of politics the last few years; but the entire world will be also be watching, because it is widely thought of as the climax of recent political turmoil. Following Brexit and in the wake of Trump, between the build-up of Wilders’s show in the Netherlands and the encore of events in Germany, Marine Le Pen’s confident fight against François Fillon and then Emmanuel Macron might either be the final nail in the coffin of “globalism” or the start of its fightback. If she comes to power, I sincerely doubt the European Union will even survive, at least in its current state.

I’ve been looking into it — into the system itself and the election — and I thought I’d write a few posts what’s happening and what might happen. I speak as someone who knows a fair bit about British politics, and quite a lot about British government. It’s been a very interesting challenge for me studying French politics and French government. But here’s some stuff I think is important I’ve found out:

France is a semi-presidential parliamentary democracy, which is not a particularly common arrangement. It is done in a little over a dozen countries, only notably France. The Weimar Republic is history’s best example. The French people will go to the polls first to elect their president, and then again later on to elect the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament. The upper house of Parliament, the Senate, is indirectly elected using an electoral college. It is entirely possible for a president to be from a different party than the one with a Parliamentary majority; this is called cohabitation — different from coalition, because a Parliamentary coalition can exist during a cohabitation government. Got it? There have been three periods of cohabitation, but, following constitutional reforms that shortened presidential terms and also brought the two elections much closer together, it is more uncommon. It will probably not happen in 2017.

The system has both a president and a prime minister. The prime minister leads the government while president is the head of state. The latter appoints the former, but the prime minister must have the support of the National Assembly. Usually, the prime minister is drawn from the National Assembly to ensure this, but this is not at all necessary, and unlike in Britain conventions and traditions are not revered; Dominique de Villepin served for two years without ever having been elected to anything. In theory the president cannot force the prime minister to resign, but in practice it is common for him to have to write his own resignation letter before he is allowed to take office, so he can effectively be dismissed at will (better citation, admittedly, needed).

Government control of Parliament is strong — perhaps as strong as in Britain. There are a variety of ordinances, statutory instruments and delegated powers that do not need to go through the legislature at all, and party discipline is high whenever there is a vote. The Senate has always had a right-wing majority, due to the overrepresentation of small rural areas, but it is weak (yes, I did read it) — I daresay weaker than the House of Lords — and, though there can be indefinite deadlock with the National Assembly, government intervention on behalf of the lower house will soon defeat it.

The only reason the president really even needs the support of Parliament is because it can pass a motion of censure that causes the government to fall. These motions are often proposed by the opposition but have only passed once. Still, the threat means the president must accept cohabitation where it is necessary.

The electoral system is radically different. The executive elections use the Two-Round Runoff system. What this means is the public will vote twice: firstly for the party they prefer, and then again between the two winners; this way, one candidate is guaranteed an absolute majority, and hence a much stronger mandate than is attainable either in Britain or the U.S.A. It also means, however, Le Pen’s considerable poll lead might count for nothing, because if she is nobody’s second choice she could be obliterated in the second round. This would not stop the National Front, her party, however, from doing well in the legislative elections.

Politics is less predictable than the two-party system in America, or two-and-a-half-party and sometimes two-and-two-halfs-party system we have in Britain. There are many parties, and the protection of the mainstream ones facilitated by First Past the Post voting is unique to Britain. Even so, since the 1980s only the Republicans and Socialists have ever held power, with a variety of coalition partners (in the Parliament — not cohabiting). This looks almost guaranteed to change unless François Fillon can pull off a huge comeback. The National Front is a relatively old party that has been chipping away at the system for some time, while Emmanuel Macron’s On the Move! was founded only in April 2016 and is the current favourite to win.


PS. Thanks to @graupelmann for clearing up the atrocious featured image I ripped off wikipedia. His version is much better.

THE END

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