The Power of the President

Another student guest blog from one of our two French bloggers.  They’ve been doing very well this semester, so like the last assignment, I decided to put up both posts about France.  This one offers a very good description of the semi-presidential system.

Who exactly is the head of la République française? (Photo by J. M.)

As our professor said in class last week, France likes to be the exception to every rule. Whether it is in culture, food or politics, France takes pleasure in being different. This penchant for nonconformity is certainly seen in its approach to government: France has neither a presidential nor a parliamentary system (for an overview of the difference between the two, click here), but rather a combination of both. Their semi-presidential system, or un régime presidential-parlementaire, means that the amount of power held by the president, the head of state, can fluctuate greatly.

The president (currently Nicolas Sarkozy) is directly elected by the population, using the same runoff system used for the legislative branch. The top two candidates advance to the second round, where they battle for the presidency. The president is the chief of state; the Prime Minister is the head of government.

The Prime Minister (currently François Fillon) is appointed by the president and approved by the National Assembly, thus conferring upon the president a power that is given to the legislature in a parliamentary system. The Cabinet (le Gouvernement) is also appointed by the president, like in a presidential system. The Prime Minister and the Cabinet are responsible before the National Assembly and can be ousted by a vote of no-confidence, like in a parliamentary system.

So how does the president fit in to a system that is only semi-presidential? Well, to start with, he has eight powers conferred upon him and only him, and when everything is working in his favor, that gives him a good deal of power. He names the PM and Cabinet, presides over the Council of Ministers and is head of the armed forces. He can pardon criminals, call for a referendum, and govern alone in case of emergency with the permission of the Parliament. The largest power of the president, which is a somewhat foreign concept to Americans, is that he has the power to dissolve the National Assembly.

In terms of policymaking power, the system is a perfect blend between parliamentary and presidential. The Prime Minister initiates legislation, as in a parliamentary system, and it is approved by the legislature, but it must also be approved by the president, as in a presidential system. Thus, the executive check on the legislature still exists, but the legislature also checks the executive since the PM and Cabinet propose laws.

These factors are what influence the degree of power the president possesses. If the National Assembly is of the same political party, then at least theoretically, it, the PM, the Cabinet, and the president will all be in agreement. If the president has all these forces lined up, he has a great deal of power and can pass almost any legislation he and his party want passed. If, however, the National Assembly is ruled by the opposition, everything changes. This can be so problematic that the French have a special name for it, cohabitation, and in 2000, they even changed the length of the presidential term in view of avoiding cohabitation.

When the National Assembly opposes the president, it will refuse to approve his appointments for Prime Minister and Cabinet, thus forcing the president to appoint a Prime Minister of the opposing party. This greatly diminishes the power of the president, who becomes a kind of lame duck behind a government that opposes him. In this case, the President can choose to exercise his executive power and dissolve the National Assembly. New elections will be held almost immediately—but if the people elect the opposition as the majority for a second time, it is seen as a vote of no-confidence and the president is actually expected to resign.

Thus, the president’s power ranges from strong to weak, depending on the political climate and the support for his party. “Semipresidential” could just as well be construed to mean “sometimes presidential.”


“Nicolas Sarkozy, President of the Republic,” France in the United States, accessed March 20, 2010.

“Who’s the Boss, Turkey?” Eurobloggers, March 18, 2012, accessed March 20, 2010.

William F. Edmiston and Annie Duménil, La France contemporaine (Boston ; Heinle Cengage  Learning, 2010).



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