France’s Government


The constitution of today's Fifth Republic—“a subtle blend of authoritarianism and parliamentary democracy” (wrote James Corbett)—provides for a president and for a bicameral legislature consisting of a Senate and a National Assembly. The president of the republic (currently, Jacques Chirac) is elected for a seven-year term by direct universal suffrage on the part of those over 18 years of age. If no candidate receives a majority, a run-off election is held between the two top vote-getting contenders. There is no vice president. The president appoints a premier (currently, Jean-Pierre Raffarin), who recommends the other members of the cabinet to be appointed by the president; the cabinet is housed in the Hotel Matignon next to the president's Elysee Palace to the north of the Champs Elysee.

As in the United States, the president is the state's executive officer via his or her policy-setting cabinet of senior ministers, and is commander of the armed forces. In a time of crisis, he or she may assume emergency powers. The president may initiate legislation, but to become law such proposals must be passed by the legislature. Of the total number of bills that the latter considers legitimate, 90% originate with the cabinet, rather than from members of the legislature; the latter mainly amends, accepts, or rejects such bills. If it rejects, the government can still issue decrees to the same effect, or put the bill to a vote of confidence in which case it becomes law unless an absolute majority of the legislature votes censure within 24 hours. The president can also call a voter referendum on a bill. Thus, the president and his government hold unusual legislative power and he or she can also dissolve the legislature and call for elections. However, the deputies of the legislature can oust the government, too, providing something of a check on presidential power.

The Assemblee Nationale, which meets in the Bourbon Palace across the Seine from the Place de la Concorde, is composed of 577 deputies, from the same number of electoral districts; in the case of a lack of a majority in a district election, a run-off is held. Terms are 5 years, but, as mentioned, the president may dissolve the assembly at any time and call for new elections, which must take place between 20 to 40 days after dissolution. The 300-plus senators, who are chosen by an electoral college, serve 9-year terms. The Senat meets in the Left-Bank Luxembourg Palace, where members deliberate bills.Although it can be obstructionist in delaying implementation of legislation, the senate's power is limited since if the government so requests, the assembly can approve laws without the senate's concurrence.

France is famous for the size, complexity, inflexibility, and expense of its bureaucracy. It is the state's civil servants, though, who have always kept France operating when crises of government have occurred. These same civil servants have also, not infrequently, tied up government functioning by striking.


France is not a particularly large country, and political authority is centralized. Unlike in the United States, the political subdivisions do not legislate, but only implement the national laws. In 1972, however, 22 administrative “program regions” were created in metropolitan France (and 4 overseas) to somewhat disperse decision-making. These were reorganized and given greater powers in 1982. Elected regional councils consist of local deputies, senators, and delegates with six-year terms. The councils coordinate regional economic development and professional training and adapt national planning to local conditions.

Each region is made up of a number of departments, of which there are 96 in total plus 4 overseas. At the time of the revolution, departments were established to replace the aristocratrun traditional provinces of the old regime. Although departments are divided into arrondissements (wards), cantons (districts), and communes (municipalities or townships), it is the commune that is the basic unit of local government. The large number of communes (36,394) makes for serious cost inefficiencies.

Communal councils are directly elected; the councils appoint the mayors, who also serve as the representatives of the central government. The Paris-appointed commissaires de la republique (replacing former departmental prefects) ensure council conformity with national regulations and are in charge of police and security. Departments administer social assistance and local transport and maintain departmental roads and junior high schools. Communes handle urban development and property, birth, death, and marriage records, and maintain local roads and preschools and elementary schools.


Politics are an absorbing interest for the citizens of France. The French system allows for many political parties—a reflection of French individualism. Usually no one party holds the legislature's majority and a coalition government must be stitched together. Philosophical boundaries between parties have become increasingly difficult to detect. In recent decades, the most prominent groups have been Chirac's neo-Gaullist conservative party, the Rally for the Republic (RPR); the centrist collection of parties, the Union for French Democracy (UDF, founded by Valery Giscard d'Estaing); and the Union of the Left, formed by the Socialist party (PS), led by Lionel Jospin, and the French Communist party (PFC),whose power has vastly waned. On the far right, but increasingly influential, is le Pen's National Front (FN); there are several FN mayors in the south. Gradually, the environmentalist parties—the Green party, the Ecology Generation, and the Independent Ecologist Movement—have made some small headway, not easy in an environmentally complacent land.


Armed police, wearing their billed pillbox caps, are visible in France. In the cities, it is the police in the strict sense, under the Ministry of the Interior. In the countryside, it is the gendarmes, under the Ministry of Defense. In addition, there is the National Security Police (CRS) that responds to demonstrations and strikes, not to mention to terrorist attacks.

France has both civil courts and criminal courts. The former try cases involving disputes between parties, while the latter deal with legal offenses of minor and moderate nature, such as infractions and misdemeanors. Very serious crimes (felonies) are tried in assize courts, which are called into session only when required, and consist of judges from the appeals courts. The rate of violent crime is low, but burglary and robbery are widespread. France abolished the death penalty in 1981. There are also commercial courts and administrative courts. Cases that have passed through the court of appeals without resolution regarding points of law may then be heard by the supreme court in Paris. For consideration of the constitutionality of proposed (not existing) laws, there is the constitutional council; but cases can be brought only by the president, the premier, the president of either legislative house, or 60 deputies, and not by private individuals or entities. Unlike in the United Kingdom and the United States, France's judicial proceedings are heard only by judges; there are no juries. Also, judicial precedent is not considered; each case is judged without reference to past decisions. The president's minister of justice, or high chancellor, appoints judges, so even the judiciary is not independent of the executive branch.


As mentioned above, the European Union (EU) is an expanding consortium of European countries that is moving deliberately in the direction of common policies at the continent-wide level. Among these is, in addition to free trade, the goal of universal public-sector balanced budgets. Many EU countries, including France, have adopted the shared euro (C= ) as a replacement for their individual national currencies.

France has had a tendency to either dominate EU policy setting, or bend the rules when its interests are at stake. In particular, France has dragged its feet in relinquishing trade protections and government subsidies of agriculture and certain industries. France has been able to get away with this behavior because, as geographer Thomas M.Poulsen put it,“In many ways France is the pivotal state of Western Europe. . . the largest and most powerful country. . . .”


Before 2002,when the draft was eliminated, young French males were subject to ten months of national service: military, defense, or technical aid to overseas departments and territories,or international cooperatives. The 275,000-person French armed forces include an army, a navy, and an air force, overseen by the minister of defense. The famous French Foreign Legion, comprised of non-French nationals under French officers, is part of the army. During de Gaulle's presidency, France developed nuclear-bomb capability and missile delivery systems and distanced France militarily from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; however, France has since had a partial reestablishment of cordial relations with NATO. France is the world's fourth-largest exporter of arms, which sometimes creates political controversy.