The Pathos of Politics – France


Julius Caesar conquered the area called Gaul in the mid-1st century bce. 5 centuries of Roman rule imposed laws and a common language that bonded the Gallic tribes, giving them a shared identity. But the people who gave their name to country were Germanic invaders. The Franks took control of France near the end of the 5th century under Clovis I, who founded the Merovingian dynasty.

In 751, the Merovingian dynasty was overthrown with the consent of the papacy and the aristocracy. Thus began the Carolingian dynasty, which reached its peak in 800 with the crowning of Charlemagne as the 1st Emperor of Romans in the West in over 3 centuries.

The Carolingian dynasty crumbled upon Charlemagne’s death, dissolving into feudal fiefdoms under a nominal French king. Over the centuries, French kings gradually reasserted their power, culminating in an absolute monarchy. Its zenith was the 17th-century reign of the “Sun King,” Louis XIV. The palace at Versailles was the most magnificent court in Europe, and France was the dominant European power. This absolutist peak lasted a century and a half, ending with Louis XVI.

The French Revolution birthed an extended era of turmoil in that country’s polities, until France settled into republican rule after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). This 3rd Republic respite ended with the Nazi invasion of 1940.

Following the war, an unstable 4th Republic folded in 1958 with a crisis in the war France was having with Algeria, a colony. (Algeria won its independence in 1962.) Charles de Gaulle took power under a new constitution – the 5th Republic – which unsurprisingly gave the president extensive executive authority.

Politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians. ~ Charles de Gaulle


The origin of France’s legislature is rooted in the democratic fervor of the French Revolution. The 1946 constitution – the 4th Republic – placed the National Assembly at the apex of government. The 1958 constitution – the 5th Republic – equalized presidential power with that of the assembly.

France is a semi-presidential polity. The President is the most powerful political figure, with authority in matters of defense, national institutions, territories, and foreign affairs. The president is directly elected every 5 years for a maximum of 2 consecutive terms.

The Prime Minister, who runs the domestic government, is appointed by the president to an indefinite term. The prime minister shares considerable responsibility and authority with the president. Confidence in the prime minister by the president and the legislature is essential for effective governance.

The prime minister and heads of the 15 ministries comprise the cabinet, titled the Council of Ministers. Ministers are proposed by the prime minister and appointed by the president. Ministers advise the president and ministries implement executive policy.

France presently has a bicameral legislature, with a lower national assembly and an upper senate. There are 577 delegates (députés) in the national assembly, elected from single-member constituencies through a 2-round voting system.

The 2 legislative bodies successively examine and modify proposed legislation (bills) until both houses pass an identical text which becomes law. Constitutionally, the assembly and senate have equivalent legislative powers.

The French Senate began with the 1795 constitution, which established a Council of Elders. Over the course of 2 centuries, the senate changed character with every new regime. In the 5th republic, senators monitor and control foreign affairs, in concert with the president.

There are now 348 senators who are elected to 6-year terms via indirect election. Regional and local political leaders decide senators.

As with the US senate, the French senate is biased toward rural areas, which tend to be conservative. Whereas the ideological majority frequently changes in the assembly, the senate has remained right wing since the founding of the 5th republic. In the 2008 senatorial elections, the socialists failed to achieve a senate majority despite having a considerable majority presence in government throughout the country.

The senate may introduce amendments to the constitution, which require a 3/5ths approval in both legislative chambers to be ratified. Comparatively, the French constitution is a pliable instrument.

The national assembly can overthrow the executive government – the cabinet – by passing a motion of censure. Conversely, the president can dissolve the assembly, and call for new legislative elections. This is how stalemates on political direction are resolved.

The last such dissolution was by President Jacques Chirac in 1997, stemming from Prime Minister Alain Juppé losing popularity over labor strikes which paralyzed the country. Chirac’s stratagem backfired, as the newly elected legislative majority was opposed to Chirac.


The French judiciary is an independent court system. Career jurists are civil servants which serve for life, barring removal for misconduct.

France has ordinary courts which handle criminal prosecution and civil litigation, and administrative courts which supervise and handle complaints against the government.

The judiciary has 3 tiers: trial, appellate, and a court of last resort, which selectively hear appeals from the appellate level on the interpretation of the law.

Like Germany, France has a separate court to consider the constitutionality of laws. The Constitutional Council only reviews issues referred by the president, prime minister, or a legislative coalition of 60 or more members.

The 9 jurists on the constitutional council serve 9-year, nonrenewable terms. 1/3rd of the judges are appointed every 3 years by the president, the prime minister, and the president of the national assembly. Unlike US supreme court judges, French constitutional jurists are rather non-political.

The constitutional court rarely annuls laws. Instead, its review suggests changes to ensure the legality of legislation.