President and Prime minister of France

In France, no single person rules the country but the power is shared between the President and the Prime minister. The President and Prime ministers both have different powers and responsibilities which are generally set by the constitution but can be altered by various external factors such as the political climate at the time and external controls.

According to Vincent Wright (1978) the president of France can be said to have five basic functions: he is the head of state, the guardian of the national interest, the fountain head of patronage, the country's most prominent politician and finally the head of the executive. The President is expected to carry out ceremonial duties, make courtesy visits abroad and accredit ambassadors. He is also seen as the most significant and dominant politician with strong leadership qualities and charisma- 'De Gaulle like imperious rulers in non-democratic regimes virtually monopolized the mass media and used the press conference not so much to enlighten the people as to appeal for national unity'1.

However, now must also consider the President's strong political power. The Constitution of 4 October 1958 had provided for the election of the President of the Republic by indirect universal suffrage by an electoral college comprising the members of Parliament and various representatives of local elected officials. General de Gaulle was elected president under this system in 1958 before being re-elected by direct universal suffrage in 1965. The new procedure broke with the tradition of more than a century, which, in the name of the supremacy of Parliament, had prohibited the head of State from being directly elected by the people. It has contributed to strengthening the executive, envisaged ever since 1958 as the cornerstone of the new institutions.

The constitution plays a fundamental role in the powers that the President is entitled to. Certain constitutional rules in theory provide the President with enormous potential power. Article 16 of the constitution states ' when the institutions of the republic, the independence of the nation and the integrity of its territory are threatened in a grave and immediate manner..when regular functioning of the constitutional government is interrupted the President shall take the measures commanded by these circumstances'2. This shows that even though the President may not veto bills or engage in parliamentary debates, the constitution attributes very powerful weaponry to the President.

The government composed of the Prime minister and his ministers 'determines and conducts the policy of the nation' and is 'responsible before the parliament'3. Special recognition is accorded to the Prime minister. He directs the action of the government and is responsible for national defence. He assures the execution of the laws and exercises rule making power (Articles 20 and 21). He determines the composition of his cabinet, presides over its meetings and directs the administrative services. He defends his policy before parliament, answers questions addressed to him by the members of parliament, states the overall program of the government in special programmatic declarations and in general governs while it enjoys the confidence of a majority in the National assembly.

However William Saffran argues that 'Although the constitution makes the president chief of state and entrusts the government to the premier, the distinction between heading a state and leading a government is not as precise as it might be'4. He has a valid point, indeed, some of the presidential powers may be overlapping, even conflicting with those of the Prime ministers.

The particular voting system adopted by a system may affect the outcome of the election and therefore determine the power given to a particular party. First-past-the-post voting was introduced by General de Gaulle as an antidote to the instability which had plagued the governments of the Fourth Republic and which had been largely due to proportional representation. The proportional system was brought back for the 1986 general election by the Socialist government – which was seeking better representation for small political groups.

The 1986 cohabitation brought a new stage of party development in the temporary non-coincidence of the presidential and parliamentary majorities. The President promised to stay in office unless the new majority blocked his constitutional powers. Two years later the first past the post system was reinstated and has remained in tact ever since. However, this cohabitation must have changed the power balance between the President and Prime minister. 

The President used to be more far more dominant prior to this cohabitation but this power sharing changed things. William Saffran stated that 'In 1988 much of the Presidents power was restored yet his relationship to the Premier has remained ambiguous considering both his policy disagreements with Rocard and the fact that the Prime minister appears to on occasion enjoy greater public confidence'5.The second cohabitation began in 1993 when President Mitterrand chose Edouard Balladur as Prime Minister after the March 1993 general election had given the RPR-UDF alliance a strong majority. This cohabitation ended with Jacques Chirac's election as President in 1995. Executive and legislative powers were once more in the hands of a single political movement and Alain Jupp� was appointed Prime Minister.The third cohabitation began in June 1997, when the general election which followed Jacques Chirac's April dissolution of the National Assembly resulted in a left-wing majority and the President appointed Lionel Jospin, the Socialist party leader, Prime Minister. The roles of Left and Right were reversed, compared with the two previous cohabitations, but this new modus operandi clearly seems increasingly to satisfy what has become a volatile electorate. All in all, the three cohabitations have shown that the institutions of the Fifth Republic work satisfactorily and guarantee a measure of political stability in France but one must consider that cohabitation governments in theory, vastly alter the political situaation of the President and Prime minister

This new found strength acquired the Prime minister may be seen as unpredicted as been as 'the framers of the constitution put Parliament in its largely subordinate place'6. The constitutions put many provisions upon parliament which made parliament seem inferior to the executive….