Discussion: France’s Dual Executive

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Discussion: France’s Dual Executive

Discussion: France’s Dual Executive

NOW FOR AN ORIGINAL PAPER ASSIGNMENT: Discussion: France’s Dual Executive

The basic elements of de Gaulle’s diagnosis are etched into nearly every provision of the 1958 constitution that pertain to the organization of public powers. In accordance with the parliamentary model, the French executive is divided (a dual executive). On paper, the prime minister (or premier) is the head of government; the president is head of state. Unlike the British monarch, however, the French president is democratically elected and wields executive powers similar, though not identical, to those of the U.S. president. As France’s leading political figure, the president is independent of the legislative branch, possesses a wide array of powers, and serves a fixed term in office (seven years from 1962 to 2000, but now five years).

France’s constitution positioned the president as the arbitrator of conflicting interests and competing political parties. As the nation’s chief diplomat and foreign-policy decision maker, the president appoints and dismisses the prime minister, dissolves the legislature, calls for new elections, declares a state of emergency, issues decrees having the force of law, and presides over cabinet meetings. In addition, the president can call for a national referendum, a device used a number of times since the 1960s. For example, in 1962, de Gaulle’s popular referendum to replace the electoral college with direct election of the president passed by an overwhelming majority. In a democratic age, nothing gives a political leader more legitimacy or moral authority than a mandate from the voters.

Compared with the president, France’s prime minister generally exercises less power and influence, although there is now a greater balance between these two offices than there was in de Gaulle’s time. As head of the government, the prime minister presides over the cabinet and is responsible to the legislature. Together, the prime minister and the cabinet oversee the running of government and the bureaucracy.

In general, however, the constitution of the Fifth Republic does not clearly delineate which powers or functions belong to the president and which belong to the prime minister. Due to his unrivalled stature in French politics, de Gaulle enjoyed considerable latitude in interpreting the constitution. Thus, during his tenure, the presidential powers were elastic—de Gaulle could, and did, stretch them to fit the needs of the moment.

 

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