The constitution gives executive authority to both the president and prime minister. The former is head of state; the latter, as leader of the Council of Ministers, is head of government. Under Charles de Gaulle’s leadership, the powers of the presidency completely overshadowed those of the government. The system forged by de Gaulle remains largely in place, although the government has gradually gained responsibility for a range of national policies, especially in the domestic sphere. Under a precedent set by de Gaulle, all presidents since 1958 have taken primary responsibility for foreign policy and for national defense.
The president of France is the official head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. The president appoints the prime minister and Council of Ministers and presides over council meetings. One of the president’s most important powers is the right to dissolve the National Assembly and call new legislative elections. Article 16 of the constitution permits the president to assume special emergency powers during a national crisis. In doing so the president must consult the Constitutional Council and may not dissolve the National Assembly or prevent it from meeting. The president is also authorized to take certain policy matters to the people in national referenda, such as the referendum authorizing ratification of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, also known as the Treaty on European Union. The president is elected by direct popular vote for a term of five years. The president’s term of office was originally seven years, as established in the 1958 constitution, but voters approved a referendum in September 2000 to reduce the term of office to five years.
The shorter term took effect with the presidential election in 2002. The constitutional revision was the most significant since 1962, when a referendum backed by de Gaulle established direct election of the president by popular vote. (Before 1962, presidents were elected by an electoral college of government bodies.) There is no limit to the number of terms a president can serve.
In general, the president works with the government to define policy goals and seeks to achieve these goals with the help of a parliamentary majority. The government is primarily responsible to parliament, which can check the actions of the government in several ways. Members of parliament can submit written and oral questions to the government and organize investigative committees. When the National Assembly adopts a motion of censure, or when the assembly refuses to approve the prime minister’s program, the prime minister must tender the government’s resignation to the president.
Presidential power is tied to the president’s support in the parliament. When the president has the strong support of a parliamentary majority, the prime minister tends to serve as a deputy of the president. When the president’s party is in the parliamentary minority, however, the president still appoints a prime minister from a party in the majority coalition. In this power-sharing arrangement, known as cohabitation, the prime minister and president may disagree about policy goals and work to limit each other’s influence. The first episode of cohabitation occurred from 1986 to 1988 under Socialist president François Mitterrand, after the Socialist Party lost its majority in the National Assembly.
In 1997 President Jacques Chirac lost his conservative majority in the National Assembly, leading to a period of cohabitation with Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin. In 2005, Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president of the Republic. Francçois Holland succeeded him in 2012. In May 2017, Emmanuel Macron was the new president of the French Republic. © "France" © Emmanuel Buchot and Encarta
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