The French presidency and presidential elections

The French presidency

The President of France is directly elected to a five year term in a two-round election. Since 2008, the president is limited to two consecutive terms (but, theoretically, unlimited non-consecutive terms). In 2000, the term length was reduced from seven to five years – the presidential term is colloquially known as a quinquennat (prior to 2000, a septennat).

France’s semi-presidential system – the Fifth Republic – was a compromise between the presidential and parliamentary systems. From the outset, under the direction of Charles de Gaulle, the vision of a president constrained by the constitution was abandoned and the presidency has become the predominant office in France. Since a 1962 referendum, the president is directly elected, giving the office direct popular legitimacy and making the presidential election the most important election in France.

In times of cohabitation (when the president and prime minister are from different parties), France becomes more of a parliamentary system, with the president limited in his powers by the absence of a corresponding legislative majority. There have been three cohabitations under the Fifth Republic – 1986-1988, 1993-1995 and 1997-2000. With the synchronization of presidential and legislative terms in 2000 and the subsequent inversion of the electoral calendar (legislative elections now take place in June, one month after the presidential runoff), a cohabitation is much less likely to occur.

The French president has fairly substantial powers under the 1958 constitution, which tend to be further augmented by normal practice. The constitution (art. 5) defines the president as the guarantor of national independence, territorial integrity, state continuity, the proper functioning of public authorities and due respect for the constitution and treaties. The prime minister, the head of government, is – according to the constitution (art. 20) – the one who determines and leads national policy. Several presidential actions – like the signature of ordinances and decrees or civilian and military appointments – must be countersigned by the prime minister and the responsible minister. In the normal practice, outside of a cohabitation, the president sets the policy direction and overshadows the prime minister.

Under the text of the constitution, the president appoints the prime minister and members of the cabinet (on the ‘recommendation’ of the prime minister), presides the council of ministers, signs ordinances and decrees, makes appointments to civilian and military offices, promulgates laws (or ask parliament to reconsider a bill, or refer it to the Constitutional Council) and may dissolve the National Assembly.

Unlike the president, the prime minister is responsible before the National Assembly and requires its confidence to govern, constraining the president’s power of appointment during a cohabitation. In practice, outside of a cohabitation, the president appoints and dismisses the prime minister and all cabinet ministers at will. The president typically sees himself as the de facto leader of the government. In 2004, for example, during a feud with then-minister Nicolas Sarkozy, President Jacques Chirac memorably quipped “I decide, he executes”. A few years, President Nicolas Sarkozy called his prime minister, François Fillon, his collaborateur (collaborator, associate).

Critics of the Fifth Republic often criticized the vast powers and central role of the president, calling it a “presidential monarchy”. France is hardly remarkable in that sense, at least when compared to presidential systems, but France has a long tradition of parliamentary government and, in certain sectors, an instinctive distrust of concentration of power in a single person (which is too reminiscent of Emperor Napoleon III, elected president in the first direct election in 1848).

The president has the power to dissolve the National Assembly and hold snap legislative elections, before the end of the legislature’s constitutional five year term. There have been five parliamentary dissolutions since 1958: 1962, 1968, 1981, 1988 and 1997. All but one – 1997 – dissolutions resulted in a favourable result for the president’s party. The 1981 and 1988 dissolutions followed presidential elections.

Under article 11 of the constitution, the president has the power, “on the recommendation of the government”, to hold a referendum on any bill relating to the “organization of public powers, reforms relating to economic, social or environmental policy” or to ratify an international treaty.

Eight referendums have been called under article 11, four of them under Charles de Gaulle (1958-1969). De Gaulle regularly used referendums to gain direct popular legitimacy for his actions, bypassing a legislature which he instinctively distrusted. De Gaulle’s plebiscitary style – resorting to popular sovereignty to legitimate his rule – was reminiscent of Napoleon III, who sought legitimacy for his rule through regular plebiscites. De Gaulle resigned, as he had pledged, following his defeat in a 1969 referendum.

In 1962, Charles de Gaulle controversially used article 11 to amend the constitution by referendum (direct election of the president), whereas constitutional amendments are to be done under article 89. De Gaulle won the 1962 referendum and the subsequent legislative elections (held after he dissolved the National Assembly after it had adopted the first – and, to date, only – motion of no confidence against the government), vindicating him.

Few national referendums have been held in recent years – the most recent one was on the European constitution project in 2005, which was rejected with 54.7% against. The fear of voters giving the “wrong answer” – which has also happened in recent local referendums – has made presidents more reticent to use referendums to legitimate their policy decisions. Nevertheless, more populist and ‘anti-system’ candidates often promise to hold referendums on a wide range of issues (particularly institutional reform).

The president has a significant role in the constitutional amendment process. Amendments may be initiated by either the president, “on the recommendation of the Prime Minister” or members of Parliament, and must be passed by both houses in identical terms. When an amendment is proposed by the government, the president may choose to ratify it through a joint session of both houses (Congress), where it requires a three-fifths majority, rather than through referendum (which is, theoretically, the ‘normal’ path). All but one constitutional amendments (the 2000 quinquennat) since 1958 have been adopted by Congress rather than by referendum.

The president is commander in chief and symbolizes the state to the international community. Even in times of cohabitation, defence and foreign policy are seen as the “reserved domain” of the president. Whenever the going gets tough, presidents enjoy jetting off halfway around the world and leaving the prime minister with the thankless jobs.

Article 16 grants the president extraordinary powers when “the institutions of the Republic, the independence of the Nation, the integrity of its territory or the fulfillment of its international commitments are under serious and immediate threat, and where the proper functioning of the constitutional public authorities is interrupted.” Albeit controversial, this article was invoked only once – in 1961. The extraordinary powers are different from the wartime state of siege (article 36) or the current state of emergency (not in the constitution).

The president is not liable for acts carried out in his official capacity and benefits from immunity from civil proceedings throughout his term. The president may be removed from office by both houses of Parliament sitting as the High Court for “breach of his duties patently incompatible with his continuing in office.” Until 2007, the president could only be removed from office for high treason. For some critics, the legal irresponsibility of the president reflects a certain ‘monarchical’ view of the office.

The president’s ability to actually act as a “presidential monarch” still depends on whether or not he/she controls the National Assembly. Since 2002, legislative elections have been held one month after the president’s inauguration and, in all three cases, have unsurprisingly resulted in a parliamentary majority for the president’s party and its smaller allies. It is assumed, with good reason, that voters will ‘confirm’ their presidential choice in the legislative election and provide the new president, still enjoying his/her honeymoon, with a working majority in the National Assembly. In 2017, however, given how different the circumstances and balance of forces are, it is not as self-evident that the June 2017 legislative elections will mechanically result in a majority for the president.

Presidential elections

Presidential elections use the regular two-round system: a candidate requires an absolute majority of valid votes cast in the first round to win outright or else the top two candidates from the first round contest a second round ballot two weeks later. Since 1965, no candidate has won by the first round. Except for the 1969 and 2002 presidential elections, the second round has always opposed a left-wing and right-wing candidate. No left-wing candidate qualified for the second round in 1969 and 2002.

Basic eligibility requirements are fairly lax compared to other countries. For examples, presidential candidates do not need to be natural-born citizens. However, to gain ballot access, candidates must secure the signature (officially présentations, informally signatures or endorsements) of 500 elected officials. The 500 signatures must be distributed across at least 30 departments or overseas collectivities and no more than a tenth of the signatures (50) may come from a single department or overseas collectivity.

Elected officials who may provide their signature to a candidate are parliamentarians, MEPs, regional and departmental councillors (and equivalent deliberative assemblies in overseas territories), members of the ‘assembly of French citizens abroad’, presidents of intercommunalities (metropolis, urban community, agglomeration community, community of communes) and – most importantly – mayors. This makes for a total of about 44,000 elected offices, although because of widespread dual office-holding (cumul des mandats), the actual number of elected officials who may give their signature is likely around 42,000 or lower. The vast majority of elected officials are mayors – as of 2017, France has 35,416 communes (it was 36,700 in 2012), 70% of which have populations of less than 1,000. In 2017, 14,296 elected officials provided their signature to candidates. 72.6% of signatories were mayors or intercommunal officials, 13.2% were departmental councillors, 9.1% were regional/territorial councillors and only 5.1% were parliamentarians. A signature does not necessarily equate to an endorsement, and signatories may give their signature to anybody, even someone who isn’t a declared candidate. Signatures are received and validated by the Constitutional Council, who publishes the list of official candidates.

Between 1962 and 1976, only 100 signatures were required. The law was amended to prevent an inflation of candidates (12 in 1974), but it has been fairly unsuccessful in this aim: after a trough between 1981 and 1995, the number of candidates reached an all-time high of 16 in 2002. There were 12 candidates in 2007, 10 in 2012 and 11 in 2017.

Until this election, the names of the signatories remained confidential except for a sample of 500 signatures drawn at random and publicized. Under a new law passed in 2016, the names of all signatories are published (see here).

‘Small candidates’ complain that the system is unfair to them. Obviously, the candidates of large and/or well-established parties face no trouble in obtaining their signatures, while candidates from minor parties or parties lacking a strong base of elected officials (historically, the far-right) have sometimes struggled. In any case, there is still no shortage of minor candidates in French presidential elections.

Campaigns are not publicly funded, but candidates winning over 5% of the vote in the first round have their campaign expenses reimbursed up to 47.5% of the expenses ceiling for the first round (€16,851,000). The expenses ceiling for the second round is €22,509,000. The state covers the costs of ballots, official campaign posters (single generic posters posted in public places in every commune), candidates’ manifestos (professions de foi, condensed short version of their platforms distributed to all voters) and official campaign ads on television.

During the official campaign period, which lasts two weeks for both rounds (beginning on April 10 for the first round this year), major TV channels and radio stations must give equal airtime and speaking time to all candidates and their surrogates. This includes 43 minutes of campaign ads for each candidate, divided in several official ads (spots) of 1 or 3 minutes.

Between February 1 until April 10, the media needed to respect the “principle of equity” between candidates – granting airtime and speaking time to candidates in proportion to their representativeness (support in the last election) and their own capacity to actively campaign. Before this election, the principle of equality applied from the publication of the official list of candidates (this year, on March 18). The rules for airtime and speaking time are controlled by the Superior Council of the Audiovisual (CSA). Polling is controlled by a national polling commission. No poll, exit poll or results may be published or released on the Saturday before the election until the last polls have closed in metropolitan France (at 20:00).

Table 1: Presidential elections (first rounds), 1965-2012

élections depuis 1965


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