On October 4, 1958, France adopted its latest Constitution, ushering in a period in its history known as the Fifth Republic. In the 59-year history of the Fifth Republic, Emmanuel Macron will become the first man to occupy the Élysèe Palace, the traditional residence of the president of France, without having a single member of Parliament belonging to his En Marche! (Onwards!) Party.
Unlike the United States, which has a presidential form of government, and India, which is a parliamentary democracy, France has a somewhat unique semi-presidential system. This system will face its sternest test yet in the wake of Macron’s ascendancy to the Presidency, a feat made all the more remarkable considering he has never held elected office.
The First Republic of France, which was founded in 1792 during the French Revolution and saw the adoption of several Constitutions, came to an end with the crowning of Napoleon as Emperor in 1804. After decades of turbulence following the fall of Napoleon in 1814, the Second Republic was born in 1848 with Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, his nephew, becoming France’s first head of state elected by direct popular vote.
The Republic fell again in 1851, with Napoleon Bonaparte orchestrating a coup d’état and ruling as Emperor until 1870, when the Third Republic was founded. The French Constitutional Laws of 1875, which put in place a legislative structure, ushered in the most stable period of republican government since the Revolution, ensuring there would be no restoration of the monarchy. The Third Republic was dissolved in 1940 as Nazi Germany conquered France and established the Vichy government, a puppet state.
Following the end of World War II, the Fourth Republic was established, just a month before India’s Constituent Assembly was convened to draft India’s Constitution. In his inaugural address, the chairman of the Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, spoke of how the framers of the Constitution could look to the French for guidance, despite the fact that the French form of government was always a melting pot, undergoing constant change.
From 1946 to 1958, a period of 12 years, there were 28 coalition governments in France owing to the fragmented nature of the legislature, with uneasy alliances leading to the repeated collapse of governments, much like India in the 1990s. All of this changed with the re-emergence of General Charles de Gaulle, who had led a French government-in-exile during the Nazi occupation of France.
De Gaulle called for the establishment of a new constitutional system. The French public duly obliged by voting in favour of a new Constitution in a referendum, and elected him president in 1959.
Like India, France has two houses of Parliament: the Senate, which is the Upper House, and the National Assembly, which, like the Lok Sabha, is the more powerful Lower House. Under the Constitution of 1958, members of the National Assembly, called deputies, are elected directly by the people, while members of the Senate are indirectly elected. Like India, the head of government is the French prime minister and the head of state is the president.
Unlike India, the president of France has been elected directly by the people since 1962 – thanks to de Gaulle’s efforts – voting in two rounds. In the first round, any individual who can get 500 signatures from elected officials across France’s administrative regions, which are known as departments, is eligible to stand for election. If one candidate is able to get more than 50% of the vote, he or she is declared the winner.
If no candidate gets more than half the vote, the top two candidates advance to a run-off in the second round, which was what happened this year with Macron and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front. In the first round, Macron finished first by getting 24% of the vote, and Le Pen getting 21% and coming in second. In the second round, Macron won the election by getting a resounding 66% of the vote.
Once elected, the president of France appoints a prime minister who has to be acceptable to the National Assembly. Unlike India, however, there is no compulsion on the president to choose a prime minister from the largest party in the Assembly, though this is what happens in practice. The reason for this is that, like in India, the prime minister and the council of ministers are dependent on the Assembly for their survival.
The French constitutional system is often described as semi-presidential, and is characterised by a structure of interconnecting powers between the legislative and executive branches. Macron has the obligation to ensure due respect for the Constitution. Under Article 5 of the Constitution, he must safeguard, “by his arbitration, the proper functioning of the public authorities and the continuity of the State. He shall be the guarantor of national independence, territorial integrity and due respect for Treaties”.
Under Article 8, in addition to appointing the prime minister, Macron has the power to appoint individuals to the council of ministers and, unlike in India, they need not be members of Parliament. Under Article 9, Macron has the power to preside over the council of ministers, whereas in India it is the prime minister who does so. Under Article 10, however, Macron has no choice but to give his assent to Bills passed by Parliament.
Article 11 does nevertheless give him the extraordinary power to dissolve the National Assembly, after consulting the prime minister and the presidents of the Assembly and Senate. That being said, he cannot dissolve the Assembly until a year has passed since the legislative elections following the last Assembly’s dissolution.
The Assembly, on the other hand, can bring about the downfall of the prime minister and the council of ministers by passing a vote of no confidence in the government. Furthermore, the president cannot implement his policy agenda without the support of the Assembly and Senate as they possess the power to pass legislation.
Thus, France’s semi-presidential system features a two-headed executive: a president of the Republic, who is directly elected and holds considerable power, and a prime minister, who is appointed by the president but is accountable to the deputies in the National Assembly, elected in separate legislative elections for a period of five years. So, the first major decision awaiting Macron is whom he will name as prime minister.
The situation Macron faces is unprecedented as he does not have a single deputy from his party in the Assembly. A president and a prime minister from different political parties has happened just three times in the Fifth Republic’s history, leading to a uniquely French phenomenon known as “cohabitation”. The most recent instance was in 1997, when President Jacques Chirac, two years into his seven-year term, dismissed the National Assembly before the end of its legislative term.
The move backfired spectacularly on Chirac, as the Socialist coalition captured the majority in the Assembly, leading to the appointment of socialist Lionel Jospin as Prime Minister and ushered in a five-year period of cohabitation. The cohabitation was characterised by extreme confrontation between Chirac and Jospin, a period of “political paralysis” according to Chirac. Chirac was particularly restricted in domestic policy, as the socialist majority managed to carry out several leftist reforms.
The cohabitation ended after the National Assembly elections in 2002, with Chirac’s party and the right-wing coalition achieving a decisive victory. The Constitution was subsequently amended to ensure that the National Assembly elections were held immediately after the presidential elections, with the president’s term being reduced to five years so as to make it commensurate with the term of the National Assembly.
This was done to ensure that any newly-elected president would get the chance to implement his agenda by securing a majority for his party in the Assembly soon after his electoral victory. Hence, legislative elections are scheduled for June in France, and Macron will get the opportunity next month to appeal to the French people to give En Marche a majority in the Assembly so as to avoid a repeat of what happened with Chirac and Jospin.
Remaking the Republic
If Macron fails in getting the decisive majority he needs in next month’s elections, he might be reduced to ruling France by decree. Le Pen’s National Front is expected to get only 15 to 20 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly and this serves to highlight the difficulty in converting a strong showing in the presidential election to gains in legislative elections.
Macron has said that French voters would logically give him a parliamentary majority if he won the presidency, but whether this actually happens is far from certain as many voters chose him in the second round to keep the openly xenophobic Le Pen out of the Élysee Palace. The mainstream Republican party, whose candidate François Fillon was once the favourite to become President, is expected to make huge gains, with the Socialists, the party of outgoing President François Hollande, predicted to perform poorly.
A five year cohabitation between Macron and a hostile prime minister backed by a hostile Assembly might make France ungovernable. In a country that is reeling from repeated terrorist attacks and threats, mass unemployment, a stagnant economy, social unrest and a rural-urban disconnect, anything but a decisive majority for Macron in next month’s elections will only improve Le Pen’s chances in 2022. If she does succeed five years down the line, one cannot rule out the possibility of a Sixth Republic.
Abhishek Sudhir is the founder of Sudhir Law Review, a legal education website.