France is a presidential republic with a centralized national government. France’s current system of government, known as the Fifth Republic, is based on a constitution that was adopted by popular referendum in 1958. This constitution significantly enlarged presidential powers and curtailed the authority of parliament. The president, elected by direct popular vote, is head of state. This official appoints the prime minister, who is head of government. The French parliament consists of two chambers: the National Assembly and the Senate. The National Assembly is more powerful than the Senate, although both chambers share legislative authority. The Constitutional Council, established by the 1958 constitution, has authority to supervise elections and referenda and to decide constitutional questions.
Until the French Revolution of 1789, France was a monarchy, governed by famous kings such as Henry IV and Louis XIV. The revolution abolished the monarchy but failed to establish a durable democracy. Power fell to Napoleon Bonaparte, and he eventually created an empire. Upon Bonaparte’s military defeat in 1815, the countries arrayed against him restored the French monarchy. The revolution of 1848 abolished the monarchy once again, and in 1852 Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, established a new empire. This regime crumbled in 1870 when Napoleon III was taken prisoner by Germany during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Democracy returned to France under the Third Republic, a system of government formally established by the constitution of 1875. A president, elected by a two-chambered parliament, replaced the emperor, and a cabinet responsible to the parliament exercised legislative powers.
Governing during the Third Republic often proved challenging: Parliamentary coalitions shifted continually between elections, and cabinets fell frequently. The Third Republic survived until 1940, when German troops occupied France during World War II and an authoritarian collaborationist regime was established at Vichy. In 1946, after the war ended, French voters approved the constitution of the Fourth Republic. The new constitution included several revisions intended to ensure a stable government, but it did not resolve the nation’s recurrent cabinet crises. France had 26 different governments during the Fourth Republic’s 12-year existence.
In 1958 an insurrection in Algeria, then under French control, created fear of a coup d'état in France itself. General Charles de Gaulle, a French resistance leader during World War II, was invited to form a new government and draft a new constitution.
De Gaulle favored a presidential system with a strong, stable executive at the center of power. His constitution was overwhelmingly approved by popular referendum and established the legal basis of the Fifth Republic. De Gaulle took office as the first president of the Fifth Republic.
The constitution of the Fifth Republic took effect on October 4, 1958. It created a hybrid form of republican government based on elements of both presidential and parliamentary systems. The constitution trimmed the authority of parliament and vested the president with crucial powers, including the right to dissolve the National Assembly and to choose the prime minister. Yet the prime minister retained significant authority as head of the Council of Ministers (commonly called the government) and leader of the majority party or coalition of parties in the National Assembly.
According to the constitution, national sovereignty belongs to the people. Under the principle of universal suffrage, the constitution gives the people the right to exercise their political will in periodic elections and referenda. All French citizens who have reached the age of voting eligibility, and who have not been deprived of their civil rights, are entitled to vote. Citizens can be deprived of civil rights temporarily, or permanently, if they are convicted of certain crimes. Women gained the right to vote in 1944. The Fifth Republic’s age of voting eligibility, initially set at 21, was lowered to 18 in 1974. As a requirement of its membership in the European Union (EU), the French parliament approved a constitutional amendment allowing citizens of EU member countries who are residents in France to vote in elections for seats on France’s municipal councils. The same group may also vote to fill France’s seats in the European Parliament, the representative assembly of the EU.
Citizens of any EU country can be elected to a French municipal council or to a French seat in the European Parliament, but they may not serve as mayors or as assistant mayors. Constitutional amendments may be proposed by the president, at the request of the government, or by the members of parliament. Amendments are adopted after they win approval by both chambers of parliament and by a subsequent popular referendum, or merely by approval of three-fifths of parliament. © "France" © Emmanuel Buchot and Encarta
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