The constitution of the Fifth Republic was approved by public referendum on September 28, 1958. It greatly strengthened the powers of the executive in relation to those of Parliament. Under this constitution, presidents have been elected directly for a 7-year term since 1958. Beginning in 2002, the presidential term of office was reduced to 5 years. The president names the prime minister, presides over the cabinet, commands the armed forces, and concludes treaties. Traditionally, presidents under the Fifth Republic have tended to leave day-to-day policy-making to the Prime Minister and government; the five-year term of office is expected to make presidents more accountable for the results of domestic policies.
The president can submit questions to a national referendum and can dissolve the National Assembly. In certain emergency situations, with the approval of parliament, the president may assume dictatorial powers and rule by decree. The main components of France's executive branch are the president, the prime minister and government, and the permanent bureaucracies of the many ministries. Led by a prime minister, who is the head of government, the cabinet is composed of a varying number of ministers, ministers-delegate, and secretaries of state. Parliament meets for one 9-month session each year. Under special circumstances the president can call an additional session.
Under the Constitution, the legislative branch has few checks on executive power; nevertheless, the National Assembly can still cause a government to fall if an absolute majority of the total Assembly membership votes to censure. The Parliament is bicameral with a National Assembly and a Senate. The National Assembly is the principal legislative body. Its deputies are directly elected to 5-year terms, and all seats are voted on in each election. Senators are chosen by an electoral college and, under new rules passed in 2003 to shorten the term, serve for six years, with one-half of the Senate being renewed every three years. (As a transitional measure in 2004, 62 Senators were elected to 9-year terms, while 61 were elected to 6-year terms; subsequently, all terms will be six years.) The Senate's legislative powers are limited; the National Assembly has the last word in the event of a disagreement between the two houses. The government has a strong influence in shaping the agenda of Parliament. The government also can declare a bill to be a question of confidence, thereby linking its continued existence to the passage of the legislative text; unless a motion of censure is introduced and voted, the text is considered adopted without a vote.
A distinctive feature of the French judicial system is that the Constitutional Council protects basic rights when they might be potentially violated by new laws and the Council of State protects basic rights when they might be violated by actions of the state. The Constitutional Council examines legislation and decides whether it conforms to the constitution. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, it considers only legislation that is referred to it by Parliament, the prime minister, or the president. Moreover, it considers legislation before it is promulgated. The Council of State has a separate function from the Constitutional Council and provides recourse to individual citizens who have claims against the administration. The Ordinary Courts--including specialized bodies such as the police court, the criminal court, the correctional tribunal, the commercial court, and the industrial court--settle disputes that arise between citizens, as well as disputes that arise between citizens and corporations. The Court of Appeals reviews cases judged by the Ordinary Courts.
Traditionally, decision-making in France has been 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.
Principal Government Officials
Prime Minister--François Fillon
Foreign Minister--Bernard Kouchner
Ambassador to the United States--Pierre Vimont (pending accreditation)
Ambassador to the United Nations--Jean-Marc Rochereau de la Sablière