How does the French political system work and what are the main parties?

President Hollande in his office during a photo session at the Elysee Palace in 2012.
President Hollande in his office during a photo session at the Elysee Palace in 2012. Credit: Reuters

The French go to the polls today, (and then again in May) to pick their new president. But why are there two rounds of voting, and why does France also have a prime minister? What is the difference between the National Assembly and the senate, and what are the main parties? 

Here's everything you need to know about the French political system.

What is France's political structure?

The President

The head of state and head of the executive, the President is elected by universal suffrage for a five-year term (le quinquennat). Since 2008, the maximum number of presidential terms is limited to two. 

The President, who is also supreme commander of the military, determines policy with the aid of his Council of Ministers (Conseil des ministres). The residence of the President of the French Republic is the Elysée Palace in Paris.

The prime minister

The President appoints a prime minister who forms a government. The residence of the French prime minister is at Matignon House (l'Hôtel Matignon) in Paris. Theoretically, ministers are chosen by the PM; in practice unless the President and the PM are from different sides of the political spectrum (a system known as la cohabitation), they work together to form a government. The President must approve the appointment of government ministers.

The Conseil des Ministres

The cabinet, le Conseil des ministres, meets on a weekly basis, and is presided over by the President - usually at the Elysée. Typically consisting of around 15-16 individuals, the Conseil is headed by the prime minister but chaired by the President. The total size of the ministerial team is typically 30-40.

The members of the Conseil are called ministers, while the junior ministers are known as Secretaries of State - the reverse of the nomenclature in the British political system.

Ministers determine policy and put new legislation before parliament in the form of bills (projets de loi); within the framework of existing law, they apply policy through decrees (décrets). 

President Hollande chairs a cabinet meeting in the Elysee Palace in 2013.  Credit: AP

The Assemblée Nationale

The French parliament is made up of two houses or chambers. The lower and principal house of parliament is the Assemblée nationale, or national assembly. Members of Parliament, called députés, are elected by universal suffrage, in general elections (élections législatives) that take place every five years - just weeks after the presidential election. There are currently 577 députés. 

Parliamentary elections involve two rounds; a candidate can be elected on the first round by obtaining an absolute majority of votes cast. Failing that, the second round pits any candidate whose score amounts to at least 12.5 per cent of registered voters.  The Socialists currently have a majority in the National Assembly.

Sénat

The upper chamber of parliament is the Sénat or Senate. Senators are chosen by "grands électeurs", notably by mayors and other locally elected representatives. They are elected for six years and half of seats come up for election every three years. There are currently 348 senators. The Right-wing currently has a majority.

New bills (projets de loi), proposed by government, and new private members bills (propositions de loi) must be approved by both chambers, before becoming law.  However, by virtue of Article 49.3 of the French constitution, a government can override parliamentary opposition and pass a law without a parliamentary vote - a relatively rare occurrence.

What about local government?

Despite efforts to "decentralise" France, it remains one of the most centralised developed countries in the world.

Its multi-layered administrative units with a local government - colloquially dubbed mille-feuille after the many-layered puff pastry - consist of:

Around 36,000 communes headed by a municipal council and a mayor, grouped in 96 départements, headed by a conseil général (general council) and its president, grouped in 13 régions (recently reduced from 22), headed by a regional council and its president.

What are the main political parties?

French politics has traditionally been characterised by two politically opposed groupings but a third force has emerged so that elections are now effectively a triangular contest.

In 2017, the mainstream parties are showing signs of breaking down, with a new centrist force emerging under Emmanuel Macron.

Until now, the Left-wing centred around the French Socialist Party with minor partners such as Europe Ecology – The Greens (EELV) and the Radical Party of the Left.

The Right-wing centred around Les Républicains (The Republicans) party - until 2015 called the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) - with support from the New Centre. The Republicans' presidential candidate is François Fillon.

The growing third movement is the anti-immigrant and anti-EU Front National (FN), led by Marine Le Pen, who is running for president.

However, there are tectonic shifts afoot. The Socialists are today faces implosion after a divisive primary won by a leftist nominee, Benoît Hamon.

Many centre-Left members are now backing Mr Macron, founder of the En Marche! (On the Move!) movement, which claims to be "neither Left nor Right".

Many disgruntled Socialists are also now turning to the Left Party, which is backing Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who created his La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) movement for the presidential elections last year.

The Communist Party in recent local elections has created joint lists with the Socialist Party.

How does the presidential election work?

France’s presidential elections take place every five years and have two rounds unless one candidate wins an outright majority in round one.

Candidates for the presidency must obtain 500 sponsoring signatures of elected officials from at least 30 departments or overseas territories.

The two candidates with the highest number of votes in round one, held on Sunday April 23, go head to head in the run-off, which takes place two weeks later on May 7.

In both rounds, polling booths are open around the country from 8am until 6pm, and up to 8pm in big cities. Most French overseas departments and territories get to vote a day early, along with expatriates living in the Americas.

After round one, candidates generally hold a couple of major final rallies.

The winner takes up office in a usually lavish inauguration ceremony held at the Elysée Palace ten days after the second round of elections, this year on May 7. The outgoing president generally leaves in a French-made car.

Are there rules on coverage?

France’s broadcast watchdog, CSA, imposes strict rules on coverage.

Once the official list of candidates is published, this year on March 18, all contenders must receive equal airtime but not necessarily at the same time of day.

During the month before the run-off, known as the official presidential campaign between April 10 and 21, contenders must be afforded completely equal coverage, which tends to help smaller candidates. 

What time will we know the result?

Under current rules, French media are prohibited from publishing polls or exit poll results between midnight on the Friday preceding election day until all voting stations have closed on Sunday, at 8pm.

But such polls will be circulated as early as 5pm on Swiss and Belgian TV and radio, as French rules do not apply. They will be available in France via social media websites like Twitter and Facebook, as there is no way of stopping this even if they theoretically fall within the legal definition of “media”.  Some constitutionalists warn that if the election was almost too close to call, unlawful media coverage could even lead to the cancellation of the election.

While the outcome will be clear by the following morning, the official results for the first round must be declared by the Constitutional Council by 26 April at the latest for the first round, and May 17 for the runoff.

How did France vote in 2012?

François Hollande became the first Socialist French President for over 20 years in May 2012.  

He beat conservative Nicolas Sarkozy by 51.6 per cent to 48.4 per cent to declare a fight back against Germany’s austerity policies, notably having declared finance his "enemy" during the campaign and promising to reverse tax cuts and exemptions for the wealthy introduced by Mr Sarkozy. 

He promised to be a "normal" president, in contrast to his predecessor's abrasive, sometimes controversial style.

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