Picture : Marine le Pen and Emmanuel Macron during the 2017 presidential debate. .©Eric Feferberg/Pool Photo via AP
This article is part of a special series on French presidential election.
The first half of 2022 will be a historical period for France. Not only is it presiding over the Council of the European Union while the entity is witnessing a full-scale war between two of its neighbors but it is also choosing who will govern and represent the nation for the next five years. A presidential election on April 10 and 24 and a legislative election on June 12 and 19 will decide the future of French leadership, its economy, social protection and its role in Europe and the world.
While Emmanuel Macron is, as of now, in good chances of securing himself another term as President, there is a vast range of other postulants aspiring to make Macron the third consecutive single-term President of the republic. From the radical left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon to the far-right of Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, passing through the more centrist mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, there is enough to be said about each of the presidential nominees and you can be sure to find out more about them here at The Paris Globalist, where we will be covering their ideas and campaigns.
Before diving into day-to-day campaigning, however, it is important to understand how the system we will be navigating in actually works. France’s semi-presidential Vth (5th!) Republic might sound complicated, but is not, really. Bear with me as I go through its institutions, their powers and functions and, for those who much like myself like to go the extra mile by metro, how to visit them in Paris.
To begin with the most known and, why not, important figure of the republic, the President of France is elected every five years by universal suffrage. This means that all French citizens aged 18 or above will be allowed to pick a candidate and give them their vote on April 10. If a single candidate earns more than 50% of the valid votes that day, he or she is elected. If not, the two best placed candidates are qualified for a second round of voting which will take place two weeks later, on April 24. Then, whoever wins the most votes is elected.
Becoming a candidate is not, however, just a matter of will. To officially be one of the possible choices of the French people, one must gather the parrainages, endorsements in the Form of signatures that do not necessarily mean a lasting support for the candidate, of at least 500 of the country’s elected representatives. Amongst the around 42,000 mayors, regional, national and european parliamentarians and other occupants of elected offices, there are many who can grant support but still many prospective candidates fall short of the 500-mark. The deadline to collect these “sponsorships” this year was March 4.
When elected, as Head of State, the President has the responsibility to zeal for the proper functioning of the institutions and the constitution and to represent the nation internationally. Moreover, he or she also has the power to influence the other powers by nominating a third of the judges of France’s Constitutional Council, having the power to dissolve the National Assembly and a one-time suspensive veto power over laws approved by the legislative power. It can also, under specific conditions, rule by decrees which do not require immediate parliamentary scrutiny and propose referenda. Finally, he or she is the chief of the French Armed Forces.
The President resides in the Palais de l’Élysée, an 18th century hôtel particulier in Paris, situated at 55 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré just above the Champs Elysées and close to the Place de la Concorde. The palace is, unfortunately, not open for tourists, but one can do a virtual tour through its rooms here: https://visite.elysee.fr.
As mentioned before, however, we are talking about a semi-presidential system here, meaning that the President, while having more powers than Heads of State in parliamentary systems (such as Queen Elizabeth of England or German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier) comes short of presidents of presidential systems, as the US’s Joe Biden or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, at least on paper.
It is not widely known but France also has, in fact, a Prime Minister. Currently, it is Mr. Jean Castex, a former member of the right-leaning Les Républicains who joined Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique en Marche in 2020, the same year he was appointed Prime Minister. This appointment is, in fact, one more power the President has, and one that makes his powers, in practice, not that much smaller when compared to standard presidential systems. As Head of Government, the Prime Minister has power over France’s ministers and public administration. His ministers must be appointed by the President, but only after his proposal, and he has the right to propose legislation to the National Assembly and the Senate. The nomination of the Prime Minister is a crucial point in the French political system, as it binds together the powers of the President and of the legislative branch. The Prime Minister is nominated by the President, but can be dismissed by the National Assembly at any point by a majority vote. This means that the Prime Minister is subjected to the composition of the National Assembly, leading at times to situations in which the President and his Prime Minister come from different parties and pursue different agendas, a scenario known in French politics as “cohabitation”.
To visit the residence of the Prime Minister one has to go to another hôtel particulier from the 18th century, but this time with a beautiful garden open to the public every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Hôtel Matignon is located at 57 Rue de Varenne, close to the Hôtel des Invalides in the 7th arrondissement.
Looking at the role of the Prime Minister already hints at another key element of the French political system: nothing really works without the legislative. The lower chamber of the French legislative is the National Assembly, composed of 577 representatives which will all be elected anew for another period of five years. The elections have the same format as the presidential, but occurring in 577 different districts spread across the whole territory of mainland and overseas France, each selecting one representative. The first round of votes will take place two months after the presidential election, on June 12, with possible second rounds taking place a week later, June 19.
As already mentioned, the National Assembly has the power to dismiss the Prime Minister and his government. Moreover, it can propose and pass legislation and decides on the national budget. It’s historical building stands at 126 rue de l’Université (just a few meters away from one of Sciences Po’s own buildings). Individual visits are, however, currently suspended, and its façade is currently under reform. A bummer, I know
The high chamber of the French legislative, the Senate, also plays an important role. Half of its 348 senators are put in power every three years by elected officials in districts across the nation but the next Senate elections are only next year, so no need to worry about that just now. The Senate can also propose legislation and amend proposals coming from the government and the National Assembly. The Senate’s President is next in line for presidential succession and it can, like the National Assembly and the President, nominate three judges to the Constitutional Court.
The Senate is located on 15 Rue de Vaugirard, at the Palais du Luxembourg, a 17th century palace built with the intention of becoming the royal residence of Marie de Medici, mother of King Louis XIII. After the revolution, it was transformed into a parliament, a function it still holds. Visits are allowed only for groups invited by a senator and must be required three months in advance. No one has time for that, but a walk around the Jardin du Luxembourg, especially as the days get warmer, is a must.
And that is it. Although fairly different from most other systems, the French one is by no means incomprehensible. Stay tuned for more pieces regarding the elections here at The Paris Globalist and enjoy your trips!