France is a “unitary semi‑presidential constitutional republic”, a non-federal system that answers to a central government similar to the UK, as opposed to the federal-state system of the USA. France has a President, a Prime Minister, and a parliament composed of two houses; the National Assembly, and the Senate.
The National Assembly is the lower house of parliament and the principal legislative body. It is composed of 577 representatives, elected for 5-year terms by winning the majority of votes in their respective constituencies.
The seats are divided as follows
- 539 represent constituencies in France
- 27 represent French-owned overseas territories
- 11 represent French citizens living outside French territory
The assembly is presided over by the President of the National Assembly. The National Assembly has the power to oust the Prime Minister and his ministers by a motion of no confidence – for this reason, the government is always formed from members of the majority party or coalition.
The Senate is the upper house of the French parliament. It is composed of 348 senators who are elected, on 6-year terms, by representatives in France’s local councils. Half of the Senate’s seats are up for election every 3 years. The Senate, being elected by mostly rural councilors, has had a right-wing majority for most of its existence; for all but 3 years of its 63-year history. It is presided over by the President of the Senate.
National Assembly members and Senators have the power to propose laws. A law proposed by a member of either house is called a proposition de loi. Proposed laws and amendments must be approved by both the National Assembly and the Senate before being sent before the President of the Republic to be signed into law. In the event that the two houses cannot come to an agreement, the proposal will either be withdrawn, or the government can choose to give the final decision to the National Assembly – this cannot be done for laws that would change the constitution.
France has both a President and a Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the Head of Government, while the President is the Head of State.
The President of France is elected in a separate election to those for the houses which compose the French parliament. The elections for the National Assembly follow shortly after the presidential election.
Because the elections are separate, the party of which the President is a part may not be the one that holds a majority in the National Assembly, but in practice, the President and the majority in the assembly are almost always of the same party.
French presidential elections are composed of two rounds. In the first round, every candidate stands. In the second round, the two candidates who received the greatest number of votes in the first round are the only names on the ballot.
French Presidents serve in office for a five-year term, which is renewable once through re-election.
As Head of State, the President has a wide array of political powers and duties. The President promulgates laws, may dissolve the National Assembly to bring about a general election, and appoints the Prime Minister. Various other official positions, including some members of the French Constitutional Council, are appointed by the President. In addition, once per law, the President can request that a bill passes through parliament again, for a chance of further amendments. The President also acts as a foreign ambassador and meets representatives and dignitaries from other countries.
The Prime Minister is the Head of Government. The Prime Minister can recommend the dismissal of other Ministers to the President. The PM’s duty is to coordinate the functions of the government and to implement laws and regulations.
The Council of Ministers is composed of the senior government ministers, is led by the Prime Minister, and is chaired by the President. All bills must be approved by the Council of Ministers. Members of the Council of Ministers can also propose bills. Bills proposed by council members are called projet de loi.
Bills can be referred to the Constitutional Council by the President to determine whether the law is in breach of the French Constitution. The Constitutional Council is composed of nine members, appointed by the Presidents of the Republic, National Assembly, and Senate.
The party landscape of France has typically been dominated by two parties, or sometimes coalitions centred around one of those parties. Those parties are the centre-left Parti socialiste, and the centre-right Les Républicains party. However, at the 2017 elections a new centrist party, founded in 2016, called La République En Marche won both the presidential election and a majority in the National Assembly. Other notable parties include the left-wing La France Insoumise party, and the far-right Rassemblement National (formerly known as the Front National).
The Council of State is France’s supreme court and takes on the role of giving legal advice to the executive branch, hearing claims against national-administrative decisions, and hearing appeals from lower-level courts.