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Government of France

This article is about the political and administrative structures of the French government. For French political parties and tendencies, see Politics of France.

In its Constitution, France declares itself to be an indivisible, laïque [roughly, "secular"], democratic and social republic. France's constitution enacts a separation of powers as well as the respect for a number of constitutional rights.

The national government of France is divided into an executive branch, a legislative branch and a judiciary branch. The President of France heads the executive branch; however, most of the power resides in his appointee the Prime Minister of France, the choice of which in practice has to be approved by the French National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. Parliament passes statutes and votes the budget; it also controls the action of the executive through questioning and enquiry commissions. The constitutionality of the statutes is checked by the Constitutional Council. Finally, the independent judiciary is divided into the judicial branch (dealing with civil and criminal law) and the administrative branch (dealing with recourses against executive decisions), each with their own independent supreme court. In addition, the French government comprises various bodies checking against possible abuses of power.

France is a unitary state, meaning that its subdivisions do not have constitutional status. However, the various legal subdivisions, the régions, départements and communes, have various attributions, and the national government is prohibited from intruding into their legal normal operations.


The Constitution

Main article: Constitution of France

A popular referendum approved the constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958, greatly strengthening the authority of the presidency and the executive in relation to Parliament.

The French constitution establishes a semi-presidential system, where the President of France has a strong influence, but where, ultimately, the deciding factor is the majority of the French National Assembly.

The constitution does not contain a bill of rights in itself, but its preamble mentions that France should follow the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, as well as those of the preamble to the constitution of the Fourth Republic. This has been judged to imply that the principles laid in those texts had constitutional value, and that legislation infringing on those principles should be found unconstitutional.

Among these foundational principles, one may cite:

The executive branch

France has an original system with an executive headed by two officials: the President and the Prime Minister.

The President of the Republic

Main article: President of France

Under the constitution, the president was originally elected for a seven year term; this has been reduced to five years. The president names the prime minister, presides over the cabinet, commands the armed forces, and concludes treaties. The president may submit questions to national referenda and can dissolve the National Assembly. In certain emergencies, the president may assume special, comprehensive powers.

Under the system created by Charles de Gaulle, the President is the pre-eminent executive figure, who names the Prime Minister and cabinet, which is composed of a varying number of ministers, ministers-delegates, and secretaries of state. When the President's political party or supporters control parliament, the President is in effect the dominant player in executive action, choosing whoever he wishes for government, and having it follow his political agenda. However, when the President's political opponents control parliament, the President's dominance can be severely limited, as he must choose a prime minister and cabinet reflecting the majority in parliament. When parties from opposite ends of the political spectrum control parliament and the presidency, the power-sharing arrangement is known as cohabitation.

As of 2003, the President is Jacques Chirac (since 17 May 1995).

The gouvernement

The gouvernement, or cabinet, is headed by the Prime Minister of France. It has at its disposal the civil service the government agencies and the armed forces. (The term "cabinet" itself is rarely used in this sense, even in translation, as it is used in French to mean a minister's group of close, politically-appointed, aides. In French, the word gouvernement can refer to government, but generally refers to the cabinet.)

The cabinet is responsible to Parliament, and the National Assembly may pass a motion of censure, forcing the resignation of the cabinet. Ministers have to answer questions from members of Parliament, both written and oral; this is known as the questions au gouvernement (questions to the government). In addition, ministers attend meetings of the houses of Parliament when laws pertaining to their areas of responsibility are being discussed.

Traditionally, the cabinet comprises, in decreasing rank:

  • ministers
  • ministers-delegate (ministres délégués), who assist ministers in areas of their duties;
  • secretaries of state (secrétaires d'état), who assist ministers in areas of their duties and attend cabinet meetings only occasionally.

Before the Fifth Republic, some ministers of particular importance were called "ministers of state" (ministres d'État); the practice has continued under the Fifth Republic in a purely honorific fashion: ministers styled Minister of State are considered of a higher importance in the cabinet.

The number of ministries and the splitting of responsibilities and administrations between them varies from government to government, but some positions tend to stay the same, even though the exact title of the position may vary.

The gouvernement has a leading role in shaping the agenda of the houses of Parliament. It may propose laws to Parliament, as well as amendments during parliamentary meetings. It may make use of some procedures to speed up parliamentary deliberations.

The cabinet has weekly meetings (usually on Wednesday mornings) at the Élysée Palace chaired by the president.

As of 2004, the prime minister is Jean-Pierre Raffarin (since 6 May 2002).

Legislation adoption procedures

Only the President and Prime Minister sign decrees (décrets).

  • The President signs decrees naming and dismissing some senior civil and military servants, for positions listed in the Constitution or in Statutes.
  • The Prime Minister signs decrees establishing regulations, which the concerned ministers countersign. In some areas, they constitute primary legislation , in some others they must be subordinate to an existing statute. In some cases, statutes impose a compulsory advisory review by the Conseil d'État (décrets en Conseil d'État), as opposed to décrets simples.

The individual ministers take administrative decisions (arrêtés) in their fields of competencies, subordinate to statutes and decrees.

Internal limits of the executive branch; checks and balances

The general rule is that government agencies and the civil service are at the disposal of the gouvernement, or cabinet. However, various agencies have been statutorily excluded from the executive's authority, though they belong in the executive branch.

Some regulate economic issues:

Public media corporations should not be influenced in their news reporting by the executive in power, since they have the duty to supply the public with unbiased information:

  • The Agence France-Presse is an independent public corporation. Its resources must come solely from its commercial sales. The majority of the seats in its board are held by representatives of the French press.
  • The Higher council of the audiovisual (Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel) supervises the granting and withdrawing of emission frequencies for radio and TV, as well as public broadcasting.

The government also provides for watchdogs over its own activities; these independent administrative authorities are headed by a commission typically composed of senior lawyers or members of parliament:

  • the National commission computing & freedom (Commission nationale informatique et libertés, CNIL); public services must request an authorization from it before establishing a file with personal information, and they must heed its recommendations; private bodies must only declare their files; citizens have recourse before the commission against abuses;
  • the National commission for the control of security interceptions (Commission nationale de contrôle des interceptions de sécurité, CNCIS); the executive, in a limited number of circumstances interesting national security, may request an authorization from the commission for wiretaps (in other circumstances, wiretaps may only be authorized within a judicially-administered criminal investigation).

In addition, the duties of public service limit the power that the executive has over the French Civil Service. For instance, appointments, except for the highest positions, must be made solely on merit or time in office, typically in competitive exams. Certain civil servants have statuses that prohibit executive interference; for instance, judges and prosecutors may be named or moved only according to specific procedures. Public researchers and university professors enjoy academic freedom; by law, they enjoy entire freedom of speech within the ordinary constraints of academia.

Organization of government services

Each ministry has a central administration (administration centrale), generally divided into directions. It is generally divided into directions, themselves possibly divided into divisions or sub-directions. Each direction is headed by a director, named by the President in Council. The central administration stays the same regardless of the political tendency of the executive in power.

In addition, each minister has a group of close aides, whose nomination is politically motivated, called the cabinet.

The state also has deconcentrated services spread throughout French territory, often reflecting divisions into régions or départements. The prefect, the representative of the national government in each région or département, supervises the activities of the deconcentrated services in his jurisdiction. Generally, the services of a certain administration in a région or département are managed by a high-level civil servant, often called director, but not always; for instance, the services of the Trésor public (Treasury) in each département are headed by a treasurer-paymaster general, named by the President of the Republic in Council.

The government also maintains public establishments. These have a relative administrative and financial autonomy, in order to accomplish a defined mission. They are attached to one of more supervising authority. These are classified into several categories:

  • public establishments of an administrative character, including, for instance:
    • universities, and most public establishments of higher education;
    • etablishments of a research and technical character, such as CNRS or INRIA;
  • public establishments of an industrial and commercial character, including, for instance, CEA and IFREMER .

One essential difference is that in administrations and public establishments of an administrative character operate under public law, while establishments of an industrial and commercial character operate mostly under private law. A consequence is that in the former, permanent personnel are civil servants, while normally in the latter, they are contract employees.

In addition, the government maintains a number of public corporations.

An originality of the French system is that Social Security organizations, though established by statute, are not operated nor directly controlled by the national government. Instead, they are managed by the "social partners" (partenaires sociaux) – unions of employers such as the MEDEF and unions of employees. Their budget is separate from the national budget.

The legislative branch

Parliament meets for one 9-month session each year: under special circumstances the president can call an additional session. Although parliamentary powers have diminished from those existing under the Fourth Republic, the National Assembly can still cause a government to fall if an absolute majority of the total Assembly membership votes to censure.

The cabinet has a strong influence in shaping the agenda of Parliament. The government also can link its term to a legislative text which it proposes, and unless a motion of censure is introduced (within 24 hours after the proposal) and passed (within 48 hours of introduction - thus full procedures last at most 72 hours), the text is considered adopted without a vote.

The role of statute law with respect to executive regulations

French law differentiates between statutes (loi), generally adopted by the legislative branch, and regulations (règlement, instituted by décrets), issued by the prime minister. There also exist secondary regulation called arrêtés, issued by ministers, subordinates acting in their names, or local authorities; these may only be taken in areas of competency and within the scope delineated by primary legislation.

According to the Constitution of France:

Statutes shall concern

  • civic rights and the fundamental guarantees granted to citizens for the exercise of their public liberties ; the obligations imposed for the purposes of national defence upon citizens in respect of their persons and their property;
  • nationality, the status and legal capacity of persons, matrimonial regimes, inheritance and gifts;
  • the determination of serious crimes and other major offences and the penalties applicable to them; criminal procedure; amnesty ; the establishment of new classes of courts and tribunals and the regulations governing the members of the judiciary;
  • the base, rates and methods of collection of taxes of all types; the issue of currency.

Statutes shall likewise determine the rules concerning :

  • the electoral systems of parliamentary assemblies and local assemblies;
  • the creation of categories of public establishments;
  • the fundamental guarantees granted to civil and military personnel employed by the State;
  • the nationalization of enterprises and transfers of ownership in enterprises from the public to the private sector.

Statutes shall determine the fundamental principles of :

  • the general organization of national defence ;
  • the self-government of territorial units, their powers and their resources ;
  • education;
  • the regime governing ownership, rights in rem and civil and commercial obligations ;
  • labour law, trade-union law and social security.

Finance Acts shall determine the resources and obligations of the State in the manner and with the reservations specified in an institutional Act. Social security finance Acts shall determine the general conditions for the financial balance of social security and, in the light of their revenue forecasts, shall determine expenditure targets in the manner and with the reservations specified in an institutional Act. Programme Acts shall determine the objectives of the economic and social action of the State.

The provisions of this article may be enlarged upon and complemented by an institutional Act.

Other areas are matters of regulation.

Hierarchy of norms

When courts have to deal with incoherent texts, they apply the following hierarchy:

  • The French Constitution and international treaties in force
  • general principles of constitutional values recognized by the laws of the Republic (as defined by the Constitutional Council)
  • organic laws
  • normal laws
  • general principles of law (as defined by the Conseil d'État)
  • decrees taken with advisory review by the Conseil d'État
  • decrees taken without review by the Conseil d'État
  • arrêtés
    • of several ministers
    • of a single minister
    • of other authorities.

Legislation adoption procedures

Statute legislation may be proposed by the government (i.e. the council of ministers)), either by parliamentarians. In the first case, it is a projet de loi, in the latter case, a proposition de loi. All projets de loi must undergo compulsory advisory review by the Conseil d'État before being submitted to parliament. Propositions de loi cannot increase the financial load of the state without providing for funding.

Projets de loi start in the house the government chooses, propositions de loi start in the house where they originated. After the house has amended and voted the text, it is sent to the other house, which can also amend it. If both houses don't adopt the text in identical terms, it is sent before a commission made of equal numbers of members of both houses, which tries to harmonize the text. If it does not manage to, the National Assembly can vote the text and have the final say on it.

The law is then sent to the President of France for signature. At this point, the President of France, the speaker of either house, of 60 deputies or 60 senators can ask for the text to undergo constitutional review before being put in force; it is then sent before the Constitutional Council . The President can also, only once per law, send back the law to parliament for another review. Otherwise, the President must sign the law. After being countersigned by the concerned ministers, it is then sent to the Journal Officiel for publication.

The National Assembly

Main article: the French National Assembly.

The National Assembly is the principal legislative body. Its 577 deputies are directly elected for 5-year terms in local majority votes, and all seats are voted on in each election.

The National Assembly may cause the resignation of the executive cabinet by voting a motion of censure. For this reason, the prime minister and his cabinet are necessarily from the dominant party or coalition in the assembly. In the case of a president and assembly from opposing parties, this leads to the situation known as cohabitation. While motions of censure are periodically proposed by the opposition following government actions that it deems highly inappropriate, they are purely rhetorical; party discipline ensures that, throughout a parliamentary term, the government is never overthrown by the Assembly.

The Senate

Main article: the French Senate.

Senators are chosen by an electoral college of about 145,000 local elected officials for 6-year terms, and one half of the Senate is renewed every 3 years. Before the law of 30 july 2004, senators were elected for 9 years, renewed by thirds every 3 years. There are currently 321 senators, but there will be 346 in 2010; 304 represent the metropolitan and oversea départements, 5 the other dependencies and 12 the French established abroad.

The Senate's legislative powers are limited; on most matters of legislation, the National Assembly has the last word in the event of a disagreement between the two houses.

Since the beginning of the Fifth Republic, the Senate has always had a right-wing majority. This, the indirect mode of election and the inequality of representation with respect to demographics prompted (now former) prime minister Lionel Jospin to declare the Senate an "anachronism".

The Economic and Social Council

The Economic and Social Council is a consultative assembly. It does not play a role in the adoption of statutes and regulations, but advises the lawmaking bodies on questions of social and economic policies.

The executive may refer any question or proposal of social or economic importance to the Economic and Social Council.

The Economic and Social Council publishes reports, which are sent to the Prime Minister, the National Assembly, and the Senate. They are published in the Journal Officiel.

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The Judiciary

France has a system of civil law, but jurisprudence plays an important role similar to that of case law.

The most distinctive feature of the French judicial system is that it is divided into the judiciary and the administrative orders of courts.

The Judicial Order

The judicial order of courts judges civil and penal cases. It consists in first instance courts, courts of appeal, and the Cour de cassation at its helm.

Judges are civil servants, but enjoy special statutory protection from the executive. They may not be moved or promoted without their consent. Their careers are overseen by the High Council of the Magistracy

The prosecution service, on the other hand, responds to the Minister of Justice. This has in the past led to suspicions of pressures to drop litigation against politicians suspected of corruption, and the topic of the status of the prosecutors comes up regularly in political discussions.

Trial by jury are used in the judgment of the most severe crimes, by the Courts of Assizes . The full court – 3 judges and 9 jurors (12 jurors on appeal) – determines first guilt, then, if guilty, the sentence. Jurors are drawn at random from voters' rolls.

Pre-judgment proceedings are inquisitorial, but the actual court appearance is rather adversarial.

The burden of proof in criminal proceedings is on the prosecution, and the accused is constitutionally presumed innocent until declared guilty.

Certain specialized courts of first instance are staffed with elected judges. For instance, courts deciding cases of labor law are staffed with an equal number of judges from employers' unions and employees' unions. A similar arrangement holds for courts dealing with rural land leases.

The Administrative Order

The administrative order of courts judges most litigations against public bodies. It consists in administrative tribunals, administrative courts of appeals, and the Conseil d'État (litigation section) at its helm.

The Conseil d'État hears cases against executive decisions and has the power to quash governmental decisions and regulations if they don't conform to applicable constitutional or statutory law or to the general principles of law.

The proceedings are essentially written and inquisitorial, with both parties being called by the judges to explain themselves in writing.

The Constitutional Council

On the other hand, neither the judiciary nor the administrative courts can judge the constitutionality of statute laws. The Constitutional Council examines legislation and decides whether it conforms to the constitution and treaties, prior to its promulgation: in all cases for organic laws, and only under referral from the President of the Republic, the president of the Senate, the President of the National Assembly, the Prime Minister or 60 senators or 60 members of the National Assembly for normal laws. The Constitutional Council may refuse statutes as unconstitutional if they contradict the principles of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (cited in the preamble of the Constitution) or the European Convention on Human Rights (accepted by treaty).

The Constitutional Council comprises three members appointed by the president, three members appointed by the president of the National Assembly, and three appointed by the president of the Senate.

The Court of financial Auditors

The Court of Auditors (Cour des Comptes), assisted by regional accounting courts, audits the finances of the State, public institutions and public bodies. It publishes a yearly official report and may refer criminal matters to prosecutors.

Related links

Local Government

Traditionally, decision-making in France was highly centralized, with each of France's departments headed by a prefect appointed by the central government. In 1982, the national government passed legislation to decentralize authority by giving a wide range of administrative and fiscal powers to local elected officials. In March 1986, regional councils were directly elected for the first time, and the process of decentralization continues, albeit at a slow pace.

Administrative units with a local government consist in:

  • about 36000 communes, headed by a municipal council and a mayor, grouped in
  • 100 départements, headed by a general council and its president, grouped in
  • 22 régions, headed by a regional council and its president.

Different levels of administration have different duties, and shared responsibility is common; for instance, in the field of education, communes run public elementary schools, while départements run public junior highschools and régions run public highschools, but only for the building and upkeep of buildings; curricula and teaching personnel are supplied by the national Ministry of Education.

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45