Currently riding high in the polls, Emmanuel Macron, the self-styled “beyond left and right” candidate for the French election, has been tipped to become the next president in May.
But if he does, will he actually run the country? This question might sound odd but the nuances of the French political system put Macron in a spot of bother. The president derives their power from the support of a majority in the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly. Macron was a minister for the Socialist Party government but quit in 2016 to form his own political movement. Now he doesn’t even have a party, let alone a majority.
Although the constitution of the French Fifth Republic, created by Charles De Gaulle in 1958, extended presidential powers, it did not enable the president to run the country.
There are only a few presidential powers that do not need the prime minister’s authorisation. The president can appoint a prime minister, dissolve the National Assembly, authorise a referendum and become a “temporary dictator” in exceptional circumstances imperilling the nation.
They can also appoint three judges to the Constitutional Council and refer any law to this body. While all important tasks, this does not, by any stretch of the imagination, amount to running a country. The president can’t suggest laws, pass them through parliament and then implement them without the prime minister.
President and parliament
The role of a president is best defined as a “referee”. Presidential powers give the ability to oversee operations and act when the smooth running of institutions is impeded. So a president is able to step in if a grave situation arises or to unlock a standoff between the prime minister and parliament, such as by announcing a referendum on a disputed issue or by dismissing the National Assembly.
So, why does everyone see the president as the key figure? In a nutshell, it’s because the constitution has never been truly applied. There lies the devilish beauty of French politics. A country known since the 1789 revolution for its inability to foster strong majorities in parliament has succeeded, from 1962, in providing solid majorities.
When those majorities are from the president’s party, they hold all the cards. The president moves from a mere referee to an all-powerful figure. The introduction of direct election of presidents in 1962 led political parties to undergo a presidentialisation process.
The ultimate aim of any party became to win the next presidential election and provide support for their candidate once elected. Any prime minister faced with a presidential majority therefore knows that they simply cannot oppose the president without risking being dismissed by a parliamentary majority that is loyal to the president. Parliamentarians will be aware that the president’s victory will have helped secure their own success in the National Assembly elections.
Sometimes the parliamentary majority is opposed to the president, in which case, a system of “cohabitation” kicks in – and the true weakness of the presidential mandate is exposed. The prime minister represents a different party to the president and can implement their programme without having to follow any presidential directives, safe in the knowledge that the majority supports them. Read more