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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in France

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: December 2013

Government and Politics

France is a democratic constitutional republic. The current constitution, which dates from 1958, outlines the functions of the executive, legislature and judiciary. The French government is semi-presidential, that is, both the president and the legislative are vested with some degree of power.

The head of state is the president, currently François Hollande (Socialist.) Since the constitution was enacted, the French president has enjoyed increasing power. He or she normally appoints the prime minister and the cabinet, and may dismiss parliament once a year. Also once a year, the president addresses a special Congrès of both houses of parliament.

The presidential election is by universal adult suffrage and takes place every five years. A president can serve for a maximum of two full terms, that is, ten years. The electoral system is first-past-the-post and consists of two rounds. A candidate who obtains an absolute majority in the first round is immediately declared president, though this has only happened once, in 1958. The two candidates with the most votes in the first round go through to a second round, meaning that many voters switch to a different candidate. The winner of this round is declared president.

The president is the head of the executive (the cabinet or ‘Council of Ministers’). He or she appoints cabinet members in consultation with the prime minster and sets out the scope of each cabinet member’s portfolio. Cabinet members are free to act within their portfolio as they see fit. They may not also be members of parliament; if a cabinet member is elected minister, they must hand over their former job to a special deputy (called an adjoint.)

The legislature, the parlement, is bicameral. The lower house, the National Assembly, has 577 seats.Members of the National Assembly (known as députés) are voted for in general elections which take place every five years. The National Assembly has precedence over the Senate if there is a dispute between the two houses.

After the parliamentary elections, the president appoints the prime minister. Since this appointment must be approved by parliament, the president normally chooses the leader of the largest party. The prime minister is head of the government and is in charge of internal policy.

The upper house, the Sénat, normally has 348 members, of whom 328 represent metropolitan France and 20 represent overseas dependencies and French people abroad. Senators retain their seats for six years. Half of the senators are elected every three years by an electoral college, which is mostly composed of municipal council delegates.

There are many political parties in France, from left-wing to centrist to right-wing to the alarmingly popular Front National. The most powerful at present are the Socialist Party (PS, centre-left) and the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP, centre-right.)

Until very recently, in the last decade or so, power in France was highly centralised, with virtually all the administrative functions performed in Paris. At present,  each of the 22 regions of France has its own regional council, which has any power over infrastructure, education, tourism and other areas.

Legal Systems

The French legal system is based on the Napoleonic code of 1804, which was an adaptation of Roman law and existing customs. This is one of the most influential legal documents in the history of the world. It has formed the basis of civil law for much of Europe, its former dependencies throughout the world, and many other countries. Since 1804, additional codes have been introduced, such as the Penal Code. New laws must pass through both houses of parliament to become enacted.

In France, the judiciary is kept completely separate from the legislative. There are two branches of the judiciary. Courts under the Public Law (Droit public) hear cases of litigation or other complaint against public institutions at administrative tribunals.

Meanwhile, Private Law (Droit privé) deals with normal civil litigation and criminal law. Private Law cases are heard in various courts and tribunals. Appeals against decisions reached in these courts are first head at the Cour d’Appel (Appeal Court.)  The ultimate court of appeal in France is called the Cour de Cassation.   It consists of six judges who are appointed by the president.

 

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