French Political System

Article I - Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common utility.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789note 

France is famous for having gone from a monarchy to a republic, but its political system has changed no fewer than ten—that's right, ten—times since Louis XVI's head came off in 1793.

Presidents of the Fifth Republic are now listed on the The Presidents of France page, along with the other French presidents.

  • Firstly, France attempted to form a Republic—the First Republic (though of course, they didn't call it that at the time), which can be divided into roughly three parts. The first bit was the infamous Reign of Terror, in which there was no formal executive (the National Convention ran everything), but Robespierre, through his "Committee of Public Safety," ran the show. Then came The Thermidorian Reaction, in which the Reign of Terror ended; this happened in July 1794. The Reaction instituted a "Directory" of five men to hold executive power in France (an arrangement inspired by, of all things, Pennsylvania). This went on for five years, until, in 1799, General Napoleon Bonaparte seized power, more or less forcing the Assembly to declare him "First Consul of the Republic," inaugurating the "Consulate" in which, despite there being three Consuls, the First Consul held a truly remarkable amount of power. However, it was still a republic...wasn't it?
  • Napoleon, deciding that being First Consul really didn't suit him, had himself declared Emperor of the French in 1804 note , thus inaugurating the First Empire (again, they didn't call it that at the time). He set about conquering Europe. The other European powers ganged up on him in various ways, with limited success. But, beginning with his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, he overextended himself militarily, and was defeated and forced to abdicate in 1814. Exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba (as its ruler), he escaped back to France and raised another army, a period known as "The Hundred Days" note . Defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he was exiled, rather more permanently, to the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena.
  • After Napoleon was safely out of everyone's way, Louis XVI's brother, also named Louis, took the throne as Louis XVIII of Francenote . This period is thus known as the Restoration. Louis XVIII reigned fairly uneventfully, leaving the throne to his other brother, Charles X. note  The monarchy under the Restoration was more or less constitutional, but the king wielded great power, and Charles in particular longed for the might of Louis XIV; at the very least, he wanted to be rid of the pesky parliamentarians and their elections.
  • Eventually, things came to a head, and in July 1830, riots broke out. Charles X was forced to abdicate; his more liberal cousin, Louis-Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, was acclaimed "King of the French," and the constitutional July Monarchy was established. (Les Misérablesnote  is set here, against the tumult of the 1830 revolution and subsequent revolts. It also inspired Eugène Delacroix's painting of the "liberated" Liberty Leading the People.)
  • After eighteen years, however, many of the king's middle-class, liberal supporters began to chafe at the slow pace of reform under Louis-Philippe. In February 1848, revolution broke out, Louis-Philippe abdicated, and the Second Republic was proclaimed. Its first elected president was Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon's seemingly-inept nephew. He promptly overthrew the government in a military coup d'etat and held a rigged plebiscite granting him absolute power.
  • Flush with victory and a spirit rather like his uncle's, Louis-Napoleon proclaimed the Second Empire in 1852, declaring himself "Napoleon III" (on the theory that Napoleon's infant son had become "Napoleon II" after Uncle Nap's abdication note ), thus earning the dubious distinction of becoming both the first elected president and last monarch of France's history. Napoleon III got France involved in wars (against Austria in Italy and against Russia on the Crimea) and foreign adventures, like the disastrous attempt to install an emperor in Mexico. In 1870, Napoleon fell into a trap and at war with Otto von Bismarck's Prussia. Briefly put, the Prussians, commanding several other German states as well, roundly kicked France's ass, leading Napoleon III to go into exile in England after his release from captivity in Kassel (former residence of one of his other uncles, King Jérôme Bonaparte of Westphalia). Bismarck declared the German Empire at the Palace of Versailles, and annexed Alsace-Lorraine. Paris was taken over by leftists in an episode known as the Paris Commune, but they were bloodily crushed after 70 days note . But by the end of 1871, the time had come for a stable government, leading to...
  • The Third Republic. This was proclaimed after Napoleon III surrendered to the German armies at Sedan in 1870, but the subsequent course of the war meant that its provisional government had to leave Paris and only returned, first to Versailles, then to Paris, after the peace treaty with the new German Empire was concluded. The early years were dominated by disputes among the two flavors of monarchist: the ultraconservative Legitimists, who were by and large aristocratic and/or deeply Catholic and wanted Charles X's grandson to become King, and the rather more liberal Orléanists, largely bourgeois or otherwise middle-class, who supported the descendants of Louis-Philippe. Between them, they had a large majority, and the Orléanists had a plurality, so they sought to make a deal—you know, standard parliamentary negotiations. They quickly settled on a governing platform and agreed in principle to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, the only sticking point being who would become king—and on that front, they found themselves (they thought) in luck. As it happened, Charles X's only grandson, Henri, comte de Chambord, was an elderly childless bachelor, meaning that they could have him become King and name the Orléanist claimant, Louis-Philippe's son Philippe, comte de Paris, as his heir. All it would take to make this work was the assent of both of the royals in question. Philippe had no problem waiting, as anticipated. But although the comte de Chambord was willing to hand the heirship to the throne to the comte de Paris,note  he refused to become a constitutional figurehead monarch ruling under the republican tricolor (which is what almost everybody wanted—even the Legitimists). So the royalists took to waiting until he died, so Philippe could take the throne. And they waited. And waited. And waited. And for six years the man would not die. Eventually, people got tired of waiting, and before Chambord (1820-1883) could kick the bucket, the French people decided that monarchy really wasn't on anymore if the fate of the country could be decided by the matter of one man's opinions about a flag and voted in a republican majority in Parliament for the first time (as a result, republicans like Georges Clemenceau joked that the comte de Chambord was "the French Washington": the man without whom the Republic would not exist). After a big crisis on 17 May 1877 (involving a constitutional dispute between a monarchist president and republican parliament) the Third Republic settled into the form that it would take until 1940: a parliamentary republic, with very little role for the President and incessantly-changing political alliances.
  • In 1940, France was attacked and partially occupied by Nazi Germany. After their surrender, what remained of the Third Republic government established the Nazi-sympathetic, vaguely fascist Etat Français ("French State"), better known as the Vichy Regime, named after the little town in the middle of the country that they moved their operations to. Though technically the whole country was subject to the Vichy Regime, and indeed it operated the civil administration all over France, the Germans occupied northern France, while southern France (minus Nice, occupied by Fascist Italy) was basically German-free until 1942.
  • The Fourth Republic was established after the Second World War. More or less a revival of the Third Republic, it was doing okay until most of France's colonies decided they wanted independence, which brought France into several devastating wars: the First Indochina War, 1946-1954, brought Vietnam its independence for a bit. Shortly after, the Algerian region demanded independence. This was not a simple matter: Algeria was not just part of France, but also home to a million pieds-noirs (lit. "black feet"), ethnic-French citizens descended from the previous century's settlement efforts, and they were determined to fight in Algeria "down to the last suitcase". France did so (to the point where Arabs to this day know the Algerian War of Independence as the "War of a Million Martyrs") until it became obvious that she couldn't pour the resources she needed into the war-effort without wrecking her economy and that the tide of public opinion within France itself had turned. (Algeria would gain independence in 1962.) Complicating matters was that the government shared the woeful instability of the Third Republic: elections happened far more frequently than they really should have, and nobody could keep a majority in Parliament for very long. The first president of the Fourth Republic, Vincent Auriol, endured 18 different governments in a seven-year term in office; on leaving he stated, "The work was killing me; they called me out of bed at all hours of the night to receive resignations of prime ministers!" These two forces together—the failure to fight the colonial wars properly and chronic political instability—led to the eventual agreement that a new arrangement was necessary.
  • Sections of the French army agreed with the French population in Algeria and partly backed former war hero Charles De Gaulle, who recommended the creation of the Fifth French Republic in 1958. When de Gaulle started negotiating with the Algerian nationalists, parts of the French army attempted a military coup which failed in three days. The Fifth French Republic is the current one.

France under the Fifth Republic is a semi-presidential unitary system, with both a President and a Prime Minister. This means, in theory, that both the President and PM have quite a bit of power. In Real Life, however, it means:
  • France's leader is the President when his party has the majority in the Parliament.
  • When the President's party does not have the majority in the Parliament, France's leader is the Prime Minister, except with diplomacy and military matters, where the responsibilities are shared. This is called "cohabitation" and it can be tense, especially when the two most important men in France hate each other's guts. Since 2002, both the president and the parliament have 5-year terms which makes cohabitation a lot less likely. It has however happened three times in the past:
    • When François Mitterrand (left-wing) was President and Jacques Chirac (right-wing) was Prime Minister, 1986-1988.
    • When François Mitterrand (left-wing) was President and Édouard Balladur (right-wing) was Prime Minister, 1993-1995.
    • When Jacques Chirac (right-wing) was President and Lionel Jospin (left-wing) was Prime Minister, 1997-2002.

The president was elected for seven years until a reform in 2000 that turned it into a five-year term. The goal was to synchronize the presidential election with the legislative one, eliminating or at least seriously reducing the odds of a cohabitation. The presidential election is in two turns: usually more than ten candidates run for the office, and only two remain during the second turn. This leads to one of the more likely scenarios for a future cohabitation: if there were to be another repeat of the 2002 race (in which the far-right candidate managed to make it into the second round because the mainstream left was too fractured, giving the center-right candidate an easy second-round victory; theoretically the opposite could happen but it's unlikely as historically there are fewer right-wing parties and presidential candidates), and the left is less unpopular than the Socialists were in 2002 and actually manage to win a parliamentary majority, it's not inconceivable that you could get a cohabitation then.

The French Parliament is a bicameral legislature: the lower house (the National Assembly) is elected via Second Ballot (think Louisiana's run-off system), the PM is always from the political majority in the National Assembly, but the president chooses who from the winning party becomes PM (theoretically, the president chooses whoever he wants, but the PM needs the approval of the National Assembly to govern). The Senate is elected by a college of 150,000 great electors (all of them being elected officials, like deputies in the National Assembly, Mayors of the 36.000 French towns, etc...), and co-write the laws with the National Assembly: because its members are not directly elected, they are usually less known than the Deputies note , and often accused of being in the Senate because they were unable to win a "real" election. The same criticism is often levelled at candidates to the European Parliament, which is one of a number of reasons why few French voters care about the European elections.

The president of the Senate is the "second most important person of the State". While not as powerful as the PM, if the President of the Republic dies or is incapacitated, the Senate president assumes his function until the President comes back to work or a new President is elected note . Finally the economic, social and ecological council, which is made up of representatives of "professional organizations" (yep: trade unions have their own legislative chamber in France), is the third and least powerful chamber. (It only has a consultative role, yet going against it too often is not the smartest thing to do, being akin to declaring war against the very easy to anger French unions. God knows how many governments have lost elections or became powerless because they pissed them off.)

The Constitutional Council supervises elections and rules on the constitutionality of laws both before and after they take effect. In this respect, it is similar to the United States Supreme Court, although it is not at the top of the judicial hierarchy. The French have an allergy to judicial power and judge-made law dating back to the parlements (which were law courts) of the ancien regime, and as such have developed a highly complex and overlapping judicial system designed to confound the ability of judges to act as a check on the other two branches; as a result, the Constitutional Council is one of three high judicial bodies in France. The "Cour de Cassation" is the court of last resort for all judicial cases (civil and criminal) and is the only one of the three bodies that is strictly judicial. The "Conseil d'Etat" (lit. Council of State) —which also has some advisory functions to the executive—for all administrative cases. The members of the Constitutional Council are 9 councilors nominated by the "three presidents" (President of the Republic, president of the National Assembly and president of the Senate). Former Presidents of the Republic are rightful members. The council currently has 12 members, with three surviving former Presidents of the Republic : Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Although Nicolas Sarkozy has since resigned from it, since 1. members of the Constitutional Council are supposed to stay neutral with regard to party politics and 2. because the CC decided to invalidate his 2012 presidential campaign funds.

France used to be a very centralized country (Paris' urban area still has almost 20% of the population), but in recent times political power has become more decentralized; this is just as well, since France really is quite diverse and benefits when government recognizes that. France is divided in 26 semi-autonomous Regions, 101 Departments (the most recent admitted being the teensy island of Mayotte), and more than 36,000 towns, cities, and villages: each of those subdivisions has its own responsibilities and control over its budget. By an ironic twist of fate, until recently, while the President and National Assembly were conservative, most big cities, 60% of the Departments and all but one Regions were left-wing ruled. This, of course, created more tension between the state and the local collectivities. In October 2011, the left also gained a majority in Senate, for the first time in the Fifth Republic, but lost it in 2014. The PS also lost many departments to the right in the 2015 departmental elections.

Currently, the main parties of French politics − at least those you are likely to hear or read about in the media − are (from left to right) note 
  • Lutte Ouvrière (LO, Workers' Struggle): A (very) old Trotskyist party which gives great importance to the defense of workers' rights and revolution. Formerly led by Arlette Laguiller, who was the first woman to run in a French presidential election. Which she did 6 successive times. The party is notorious for its utter refusal to make alliances with anyone, even the ideologically close NPA.
    • Their candidate for the 2012 presidential election was Nathalie Arthaud (economy and management teacher). She scored 0.5%.
  • Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA, New Anticapitalist Party): Exactly What It Says on the Tin. A refoundation of an old Trotskyst party (the Revolutionary Communist League, LCR), led by young postman Olivier Besancenot until recently, composed of and led by mostly non-professional militants, and proud of this fact. They put an emphasis on ecological and social issues and like the previous party, they consider only social struggle brings any change. Their current spokeswoman is Christine Poupin (although you're more likely to read about Philippe Poutou or Olivier Besancenot in the media).
    • Their candidate for 2012 was Philippe Poutou (worker and union leader in a car factory). He scored 1.5%.
  • Front De Gauche (FdG, Left Front): A gathering of several radical left-wing parties engaged in 2009. It includes the French Communist Party (PCF) led by Pierre Laurent, which was nearly dead after its disastrous score in 2007 (2%); the Left Party (PG) founded in 2008 by Jean-Luc Mélenchon who slammed the PS's door because of its increasingly right-wing orientations; the Unitary Left (GU) led by Christian Picquet, a scission from the NPA (which didn't join the Left Front); and six other small formations − four of which recently fused to form the party "Ensemble" (Together) and have more weight within the Front. The Left Front calls for a Constituency Assembly and a Sixth Republic, as well as a maximum income. Their ideas are mostly similar to the NPA, except they promote change through both popular involvement and elections. Lately they have started to promote the idea of "eco-socialism", a vision of socialism that feeds on ecological reflexion. While they had called to vote for Hollande (or rather, against Sarkozy) in the second round of the 2012 election and initially were in a kind of "let's see how he will do" posture, they are now in a clear-cut opposition to his government.
    • Their candidate for 2012 was Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Member of European Parliament). He scored 11%.
  • Europe-Écologie/Les Verts (EELV, Europe-Ecology/The Greens): A fusion between the old Green party and a more recent party led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a famous figure of the May 68 protests who is now more of a centrist. Currently, the party is led by Émanuelle Cosse. The political spectrum within the alliance is quite large, from de-growth activists to centrist liberals. Thus, the political line of the party is rather blurry, but mostly on the center-left. During the 2012 election, they forged an agreement with the Socialist Party and participated in their government until April 2014. The party's ministers had said in 2013 that they would leave the government should the ostensibly rightwing(and then minister of the interior) Manuel Valls become prime minister. Which is exactly what happened after the 2014 city council elections.
    • Their candidate for 2012 was Éva Joly (a former Franco-Norwegian examining judge). She scored 2.5%.
  • Parti Socialiste (PS): The party currently in power, once a left-wing party, created in 1969. note  Although it implemented a few acclaimed social reforms while in power (like the death penalty abolition, the Minimum Income of Insertion, the Tax on Large Fortunes or the 35 hours working week), since the mid-80s, its economic views have progressively switched to the right, making it some kind of French Democratic Party. So it's now "socialist" in name only. Now led by Jean-Christophe Cambadélis… or by God only knows who.
    • Their candidate for 2012 was François Hollande (deputy of the Corrèze department). He scored 28% in the first round and won the second round with 51,5%.
  • Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem): the main centrist party, founded by the former lead of the Union for French Democracy (UDF), François Bayrou (deputy of Pyrénées-Atlantique at the time and now mayor of Pau). Economically mildly liberal, it created a surprise in 2007 with a score of 18,5%, but nothing ensued from it. Bayrou explicitly cites the American Democrats as an inspiration (hard to believe, we know, but the "neither socialist nor conservative" thing is actually kind of appealing to some in France), and actually tried to call his party Parti démocrate, but learned that some dinky party nobody had ever heard of already had the name, which apparently pissed Bayrou off to no end.
    • Their candidate for 2012 was François Bayrou once more. He scored 9.5%.
    • Basically half the UDF already split to join Alain Juppé/ Jacques Chirac to found the UMP in 2002. Bayrou was not one of them. Then, in 2007, virtually all of what was left of the UDF dumped him to found the Nouveau Centre under Hervé Morin, which then promptly joined a coalition with the UMP and was mostly absorbed by them, until the 2012 election, where Nicolas Sarkozy is perceived to have ditched the centrists to try to please the far-right (basically, not doing what got him elected in 2007, which worked just as well as you can imagine). What was left of centrists still loyal to the UMP at this point left to form:
  • Union des Démocrates et Indépendants (UDI): A new party created after the 2012 elections by Jean-Louis Borloo (a former minister of Nicolas Sarkozy) and member of the Radical Party, to try and unite the "centrist wing" after Bayrou seemingly failed to do so. They have some deputies, so time will tell if they manage to gather a solid electorate. Notable members/supporters include former President Valéry Giscard-d'Estaing and Simone Veil, Auschwitz survivor and minister of health under Giscard who legalised abortion back in The Seventies. As of January 2014 they've entered into an alliance of sorts with Bayrou for the nationwide city council elections and European elections, so basically it looks like the UDI is going to be roughly exactly what the UDF had been pre-2002. Well that was useful.
  • Debout la République (DLR, "Rise Up, Republic!"): Formerly a current within the UMP, led by Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, it seceded and became an independent party in 2007, to represent the nominally Gaullist right-wing. They promote a Keynesian flavour of capitalism rather than what they perceive as the deregulated, neo-liberal capitalism of the EU, as well as a confederal model for The European Union. Critical of the European Commission for being unelected. They also promote the Euro as a common reference currency (with national currencies in parallel) rather than a single currency.
    • Their candidate for 2012 was Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (Deputy of the Essone department). He scored 2%.
  • Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP, Union for a Popular Movement): Founded in 2002 by Jacques Chirac and Alain Juppé, it's actually a gathering of several right-wing parties but is basically the successor of the former Rally For Republic (RPR). note  Known for its neoliberal economic views and its harsh positions on immigration and insecurity (even more so after Nicolas Sarkozy took the lead and wanted to attract far-right voters, although ostensibly so as to draw said voters away from the National Front). As the successor of the RPR, it's basically the Republican Party to the PS's Democratic Party. It was led by both Jean-François Copé and François Fillon after the former won the internal election with a ridiculously tight margin but the latter refused to acknowledge his defeat, both sides accusing the other of fraud. So they had to reach a compromise. The consensus among French people is that both probably did cheat, and so both are immensely unpopular. In November 2014, a new internal election was held, and, guess who, Nicolas Sarkozy was comfortably elected president of the party. In April 2015, Sarkozy decided out of nowhere to change the name of the party into… "The Republicans".
    • Their candidate for 2012 was the outgoing president, Nicolas Sarkozy. He scored 27% in the first round but was beaten in the second round with 48,5%.
  • Front National (FN): The main nationalist party and third major party in number of voters. It was founded in The Seventies by a bunch of people nostalgic of Vichy or French Algeria, and was originally little more than a groupuscule before its sudden rise in the mid-eighties. Its most famous figure Jean-Marie Le Pen was consistently seen as a Politically Incorrect Villain because of his often sulfurous statements. In 2011, his daughter Marine won an internal election to become the president of the party, beating Bruno Gollnisch. One could argue that the party's line has shifted from blatant antisemitism and racism, to the populist islamophobia popular in much of Europe. Marine Le Pen is by all accounts, if nothing else, not nearly as antisemitic as her father was note ; on the other hand, she once infamously compared Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation. Her main battlehorses are defending Catholic values against the "Islamization" of France, curbing immigration and fighting insecurity (which the FN considers to stem from immigration); they are also against the Euro currency and promote the return of the death penalty in France. A notable difference in the FN's newer style of politics is a strikingly Left Front-esque focus on Finance and neoliberalism in The New Tens (think a socially-conservative version of Geert Wilders), and a communication strategy commonly refered to as "dédiabolisation" ("de-demonization"), that seeks to polish the image of the party in the media. With undubitable success, mostly thanks to the media themselves. Notable for reaching the second turn in 2002, dovetailing the socialist candidate with 17%; if French people talk about "April 21", it refers to this. It was that big a shock. The 2014 European Parliament election, in which the FN beat all of the other establishment parties and came in first, was an even bigger one.
    • Their candidate for 2012 was Marine Le Pen (Member of European Parliament). She scored 18%. note 
    • By the way, her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who contrary to her aunt actually made it to the Parliament, is effectively the FN's only elected MP note  She's also the youngest MP of the current legislature at the tender age of 23, a distinction she shares with her grandfather, Jean-Marie Le Pen.


Depictions in fiction

  • Les Misérables was mentioned above as being set during the July Monarchy. This is true: the majority of the book's action, and its most famous scenes, concern the student revolts of 1832. But Victor Hugo's epic spans a far greater period of time. The book's first viewpoint character, the Bishop of Digne, is described as a nobleman who escaped the Terror and once met Emperor Napoleon. Fantine, an orphan, was born in that same era, when there was no church and legal records were chaotic. Many years later, when Jean Valjean finds Cosette, he slips a gold Louis into her shoe on Christmas Eve, setting her adoption as during the Restoration — all this in the first half of the book.
    • It also contains one of the most famous literary depictions of the battle of Waterloo.
  • The film Les enfants du paradis is set during the July Monarchy and is in itself an interesting document of French history as its production was begun under German occupation (some of the people involved, e. g. composer Joseph Kosma, hiding out from the Nazis) and finished after the liberation of Paris.
  • The French comic book Quai d'Orsay by Christophe Blain and Abel Lanzac: an Affectionate Parody of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under "Taillard de Vorms", a transparent Dominique de Villepin Expy. note  Abel Lanzac is actually the pen name of a former diplomat, so a decent case of Shown Their Work.