French Elections: Presidential Power

The French presidency has traditionally had a mythical quality. As father – or in theory, at least – mother of the nation, the person who incarnates the French republic is supposed to be above party politics and – rather more controversially – above the law. But as voters prepare to choose their president for the next five years, the institution is in danger of slipping into irrelevance. Much depends on the result of presidential voting this month and next and, more importantly perhaps, of the June legislative elections.

The World Today Updated 23 October 2020 Published 1 April 2002 3 minute READ

James Coomarasamy

BBC Paris Correspondent

The main reason for doubts about the power of the presidency is cohabitation – the political ‘exception française’ par excellence, whereby a president and prime minister from opposing political parties share power in a loosely defined way. For its advocates, cohabitation provides a useful system of checks and balances not that different from a traditional coalition. For detractors, it creates the perfect conditions for watered down legislation and stagnant policy.

There have been other times of left/right cohabitation since the mid-1980s, but the past five years has been the longest period. Foreign leaders have grown used to seeing right-wing President Jacques Chirac and socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin at European Union summits like a Gallic odd couple, communicating matters of foreign policy through gritted teeth, with ‘a single voice’. Official visitors have also got used to the protocol of making two separate house calls during visits to Paris.

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