The current French political system of the Fifth Republic is a hybrid presidential/parliamentary system with a President who is head of state, sharing power with a Prime Minister who is the head of government.

France's semi-presidential political system stands out in Europe, where all other EU members have variations of parliamentary systems, and where the head of government is chosen by a majority of parliamentarians, leaving the Head of State as President/Monarch as a mostly ceremonial figure. The French directly elect their President, who wields considerable political power. The French President chooses the Prime Minister, though the candidate must command majority support in parliament. Only parliament can dismiss a Prime Minister who does not resign voluntarily. The President can dissolve parliament and call new elections, and is the Commander-in-Chief of France's armed forces and its nuclear deterrent. All in all, the President generally dominates French politics, and winning the office is the ultimate prize in the country's political process.

The straitjacket of the presidency prevents France from establishing a stable grand parliamentary coalition of the kind that governs most other European countries today. The mainstream center-right and center-left in France will never come together to pass commonsense economic reforms, as each will always try to undermine the others' chance of winning the next presidential election. Cutting the French President's term from seven to five years in 2002 and aligning it with the elected term of the parliament has ironically amplified this penchant for political sabotage, because the next election is always primarily about the winning presidency.

France must change its system, preferably reducing the status of its presidency to the largely ceremonial level seen in other European republics. At the least, it should abolish articles 8, 12, and 15 of Title II of the French Constitution, removing the President's right to name the Prime Minister, call new elections, and serve as Commander-in-Chief.

ARTICLE 8 The President of the Republic shall appoint the Prime Minister. He shall terminate the appointment of the Prime Minister when the latter tenders the resignation of the Government. On the recommendation of the Prime Minister, he shall appoint the other members of the Government and terminate their appointments.

ARTICLE 12 The President of the Republic may, after consulting the Prime Minister and the Presidents of the Houses of Parliament, declare the National Assembly dissolved. A general election shall take place no fewer than twenty days and no more than forty days after the dissolution. The National Assembly shall sit as of right on the second Thursday following its election. Should this sitting fall outside the period prescribed for the ordinary session, a session shall be convened by right for a fifteen-day period. No further dissolution shall take place within a year following said election

ARTICLE 15 The President of the Republic shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. He shall preside over the higher national defence councils and committees.

The challenges of today demand that the era of regularly electing a new king and regularly tossing him out again should be over in France.

France's two-round election system for President and parliament is even more detrimental. The system was attractive following the frequent parliamentary fragmentation and instability of the earlier Third Republic (1870–1940) and the Fourth Republic (1946–58). But today the system helps perpetuate bizarre political movements, as voters (ideally) vote with their hearts in the first round and with their minds in the second.

Setting a high minimum voter threshold, perhaps similar to the German 5 percent of votes, for any party to win, would help avoid fragmentation and a proliferation of parties. Without reform, France seems unlikely to return to the pinnacles of Europe.


In the French hybrid system, the President, directly elected by the people, is an extremely powerful position and is the focal point of the political system. The President appoints the Prime Minister who is the Head of the Government and acts as the President’s liaison with the National Assembly, the lower house of the legislature. If the President’s political party wins a majority in the legislature (National Assembly) election, now held a week after the second round of the presidential election, there is no problem. The President will then have his legislative program passed.

But there is a fatal flaw in the design of this system. If the opposition wins the legislative election and there is a President from one party and National Assembly majority from another, as has happened three times (1986-1988, 1993-1995, and 1977-2002) in the Fifth Republic, the President becomes virtually powerless and the Prime Minister (from the opposition representing the majority in the National Assembly) can pass his/her legislative program, even undoing the sitting President’s agenda. And the President is helpless to prevent it, because the French President has no veto power.  

French political analysts are divided as to whether cohabitation illustrates the flexibility, durability, and resilience of the Fifth Republic, or its inherent chronic instability. Cohabitation was never envisioned by de Gaulle as a possibility in the Fifth Republic. He believed that the President should have a legislature willing to enact the President’s program, or else the president should resign.

Since 1789 France has experienced several monarchies, two empires, German occupation and collaborationist governments, and five republics. Sixty two years has been a pretty good run for the Fifth Republic. May be the time has come to change it.

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