French Politics : Explained! (part I) – The Constitution
Every single time I meet foreigners, it appears quite clear to me that they don’t really understand the French political system. And I can’t really say that I don’t see why, considering that the French themselves can’t seem to fully agree on how it works. In order to clarify it, and since it is indeed very different from what exists in other countries, let me start a two-part article to finally make the politique française crystal clear again! Or at least try to…
In this first part, I will address the basics of the French political system, as it is set by the founding text: the Constitution. You will therefore better understand how France is organized, and who is in charge of what. In another article, I will describe the current political landscape, and the main parties…
What is France…?
The question may seem futile. If you have a little sense of geography, you are probably aware that France is a country in Europe. Okay… but actually, France reaches territory far and wide, it is not just limited to Europe.
France is a Republic, whose territory is mostly composed of a main terrestrial area in Western Europe (known as “Mainland”, or “la Métropole” in French) – which includes the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea, AND many overseas territories (known as “Outre-mer” in French) in the Caribbean, Polynesia, North America, South-America and the Indian Ocean…
Therefore, politically speaking, France is all of the above. However, to make the administration of it easier (which can be discussed…) the territory has been divided into thirteen Mainland regions, and five Overseas regions. Some Overseas territories are not included in the previously mentioned regions and benefit from a special status – some of them having their own political system (which I won’t discuss here in order to not complicate it all!)
Each Mainland region is divided into smaller territories known as Département (departments). Each department has a name and a number – which are often used in the everyday life, so if you move to France you should know which number your department bears. For instance, the city of Paris has a department of its own, and bears the number 75. Marseille is in the “Bouches-du-Rhône” department which bears the number 13…
The complex hierarchical organization is responsible for heavy administration and bureaucracy (since there are people supervising and working for each territorial division). Keep in mind, however that the Regions and smaller divisions are NOT similar to federal entities such as the states in the US. They have much less power. In France, most of the decisions are taken at the national level, in Paris.
The triple power system
Like in most democracies, France has a three-headed system, inherited from the 1789 Revolution, which are the Judicial power (justice), the Legislative power (in charge of making the laws and ensuring their application), and the Executive power (in charge of exercising authority).
The current republic in place is the Fifth Republic (France many times changed its political system in History, especially since the French Revolution). This Republic, existing since 1958, ensures that each branch must keep to its respective duty. However, the President (the head of the Executive branch) is often seen as the country’s chief, and the hierarchy is much more perceivable than in the US or UK systems for instance… Indeed, in the previous Republics the Parliament and Legislative branch had more power (France had a Parliamentary Republic). But the system failed and led to extreme instability.
When Charles de Gaulle installed the Fifth Republic, he placed the President as the national arbiter, and truly gave the function almost royal functions. Some see the Fifth Republic as a Republican Monarchy considering the powerful position of the President, who can’t be impeached, and can place many people of his choosing in key positions. He is especially the one who appoints the Prime Minister – although the latter should be approved by the Parliament. This is why the French make such a big deal of their Presidential elections.
So, the Executive branch is led by the President who appoints a Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then constitutes a Government composed of Ministers (each Minister has a topic in charge: Finances, Education, Culture, Tourism, Defense, Environment and so on…). The President is also the military Commander in Chief. The Government mostly works on various policies in line with each Minister’s area, and prepares bills to send to the Legislative Branch.
The Legislative Branch is mainly composed of the Parliament which consists in two main entities: the National Assembly (Assemblée Nationale) which represents the People, and the Senate (Sénat) which represents the Territories. The people who sit at the National Assembly are called Deputies, while those who sit at the Senate are Senators. Deputies and Senators are in charge of discussing the Government’s bills, or suggesting their own bills, and voting to turn bills into effective laws. In France, written laws and acts are much more numerous than in the US or the UK, as it works on a Civil law system where written codes prevail much more than precedent.
The Judicial Branch is in charge of interpreting laws and making sure they are applied.
Elections are often a very big deal in France. However, they are quite complicated to understand as they all work on different systems. Here is a quick clarification of the main elections you may encounter while you travel in France.
- The presidential election is the most important one, and by far the one most people take part in. The President of France is elected every five years, in a two-round direct election which is held in May. In the first round all eligible voluntary candidates compete against one another at the National level, and French citizens vote for the one they wish to see as President. If one of the candidates secures more than 50% of the votes, he or she becomes President directly. However, due to the vast number of Parties and candidates (see Part II of the article), the 50% threshold is almost never reached. Therefore, in this case, the two candidates who received the highest number of votes, proceed to a run-off, two weeks later. The one who gets the majority of votes in round two becomes President.
- The Deputies of the National Assembly are also elected for five years in the Legislative Elections. These elections are also direct two-round elections. However, Deputies are not elected at the National level. As a reminder, Deputies represent the People. The French territory is divided into constituencies, which comprise roughly 100 000 inhabitants. In each constituency, citizens directly vote for the one they want to see as their This is why each of the 577 Deputies is always named with the name of his or her constituency. For instance, you may hear of “Mr. X, deputy of the department “Loire” – constituency number 3”. All constituencies vote at the same time. If a deputy in a given constituency gets more than 50% of the votes on the first round, they are directly elected as Deputy, if not there is a run-off.
- Senators are not directly elected by the People. They represent the Territories and are elected by the territories representatives, delegates and elected officials known as “Great Electors”. The Senate is not renewed in one election. Instead, Senators are elected for six years, and one third of the Senate is renewed every two years. Therefore, it takes three Senatorial elections to renew the whole Senate.
- Other important elections include Municipal elections (which are the elections in which city mayors and city councils are elected), and Departmental elections. These elections work on a direct list vote, which means citizens directly vote but they do not elect one single person. Instead, they elect a whole list of people. In the case of Municipal Elections, citizens directly elect a municipal council, and the city mayor is indirectly elected by this council. Of course, when citizens vote for a given list, they know who the council they vote for will elect as mayor. However, most like Great Electors may do in the US presidential election, the council may decide to vote differently (which rarely happens).
In France, political institutions are often linked to specific places.
Just like in most countries, mayors and city councils seat at the City or Town Hall (known indistinctively as Hôtel-de-Ville or Mairie).
The National Assembly seats are found at Palais Bourbon, which is very recognizable with its greek temple-like façade, well-visible from Place de la Concorde. The Senate seats are at the Luxembourg Palace by the Gardens of Luxembourg.
The Prime Minister’s residence and workplace is Hotel de Matignon, while the President’s residence and workplace is Palais de l’Elysée.
You will often hear “l’Elysée” or “Matignon” as metonyms, standing for “the Prime Minister and his/her staff” or “the President and his/her staff” respectively.
What about Europe?
If you travel to France, you may hear about another important political level: the European Union. I won’t explain in details how it works since it is extremely complicated and would require an entire article of its own!
The European Union is a group of countries, including France, all located in the continent Europe, which decided to create common institutions and rules, in order to avoid reigniting conflicts after World War II – which pretty much ruined the whole region. The idea was that the more countries where codependent the less they would let conflict crawl back. And it worked pretty well! The European Union (EU) has not seen armed conflicts between its members in more than 70 years, which is the first time in History.
The EU has set common rules that all members must abide by. However, this should not be considered as a super-state or a federal state, as, unlike in the US for instance, all member states remain independent in many important ways.
Also, one should not mistake the EU for other close concepts such as the Schengen Area, or the Eurozone.
The Schengen Area is a group of states which decided to suppress their borders to allow free movement of people and merchandise between them. While most countries which take part of the Schengen Area are members of the EU, some are not. Likewise, some EU members are not part of the Schengen Area.
The Eurozone is the group of countries that have the Euro as their official currency. Like with the Schengen Area, many EU members (but not all) have the Euro for currency…and some non-EU members also have the Euro for currency!
The European Union mostly has a political and legal dimension. It is run via European institutions – like the European Commission or the European Parliament. The European Parliament is elected throughout Europe in European Elections.
As if it was not complicated enough, not all countries have the same election system for the European Elections…
I hope you now see a bit more clearly how the French political system is working. Of course, this was only a very basic approach to set the foundations of these various concepts. This would allow you to better understand the often-animated conversations about Political life that the French love.
As you may have noticed, I only explained the empty shell of it, the structure. In part two of this article, I will deal with the current political situation, so that you can actively take part in conversations! I will explain which the main parties are in the French political life, and who the main Politicians to know about are.