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The politics of nations: France


As the dysfunctions of our political system have become a more prevalent theme on this blog, I've gotten a large number of requests for a series exploring the political systems of other countries. How England runs its health-care system is a lot better understood than how England passed the law that created its health-care system, even though the latter is arguably more important for our purposes.

Dylan Matthews has begun writing a series that will explore different world legislatures. Each installment will focus on a different nation's system, outlining the basics but paying special attention to procedural roadblocks to passing legislation and the power of the leadership and minority. Last week, he looked at Britain. This week, France. Here's Dylan.

The basics

The French parliament is bicameral, with a National Assembly comprising 577 members directly elected by local constituencies, and a Senate selected indirectly by representatives of France's cities, regions, and 100 "departments" (the country's main administrative division). In this respect, the Senate resembles the U.S. Senate before the 17th amendment, when members were elected by state legislatures rather than by voters.

The parliament has to interact with both a president and a prime minister, both of whom wield substantial power. The president appoints the prime minister, but because the National Assembly can vote to censure the prime minister, forcing his resignation, his choice must be supported by a majority in the Assembly. The prime minister then recommends the rest of his cabinet – with the foreign minister, health minister, justice minister and interior minister (who handles policing) among the most important and sought-after posts – to the president for approval. The president can dissolve the National Assembly and call new elections, but this is seen as an extreme measure.

Unlike in Britain, the prime minister, and indeed all of the cabinet, cannot serve in the National Assembly or the Senate. Those culled from the parliament must resign their seat or place it in the hands of a caretaker. French law now explicitly allows cabinet members who resign to automatically take back the seat in parliament they left to join the cabinet. Consider Obama's cabinet and the usefulness of this should be clear; what if Ken Salazar resigned as Interior Secretary tomorrow and automatically assumed Michael Bennet's seat?


A referendum in 2000 reduced the president's term from seven to five years, which actually substantially increased his powers by placing presidential elections only a month before Assembly elections. This means that, barring a sudden, one-month political shift, the National Assembly and presidency will be controlled by the same party. This means that the president can appoint more or less who he wishes as prime minister, and does not have to deal with opposition legislators. For comparison, imagine Obama proposing a constitutional amendment giving Congressmen four-year terms and thus eliminating midterm elections, and you'll start to get the idea.

All French elections, be they for the presidency or the legislature, take a run-off structure similar to that used in Louisiana's "jungle primaries." If no candidate wins a majority in the initial election, a run-off is held between the top two vote-getters, with the winner taking the seat. A close first round can occasionally lead to strange runoffs. Most infamously, Chirac only earned 19.88 percent of the vote in the first round in 2002, with Jospin not far behind with 16.18 percent. However, neo-fascist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen squeaked in between the two of them with 16.86 percent. What could have been a tight race between Chirac and Jospin thus became a blowout for Chirac, who earned 82.21 percent of the vote in the second round, with Le Pen barely increasing his showing to 17.79 percent.

As in Britain, there is no primary system, and candidates are selected by the national party, with input from local officials.

How a bill becomes an act

The agenda for the parliament is dominated by the business of the government – that is, the prime minister and his cabinet. This used to be formally required – government bills had absolute priority in parliament, and had to be debated when requested by the government – but reforms in 2008 have reduced this, requiring only that every other week of parliament be controlled by the government.

However, the University of Reading's Andrew Knapp notes that this has not had much practical effect, and the government still has de facto control over the parliament's agenda. And with the recent electoral changes, the government's agenda is largely the president's agenda, as the government is usually of the same party as the president. Legislation can be started in either house, except legislation concerning territorial issues, which must begin in the Senate. Each one starts in a committee, which will debate and amend the bill. This is where the opposition can most effectively obstruct a bill in progress, by introducing huge numbers of amendments that are then passed onto committee to debate (sound familiar?). However, in these cases the government can order a vote without amendment. This is an emergency procedure, and so is only deployed in cases of unusually relentless opposition.

A bill will generally get a "reading," where it is presented and read on the floor of each house, and after these readings and subsequent debate, a vote is conducted. If both houses pass the same bill, it goes into effect. However, any differences will lead to third readings and debates, and another set of votes. If the houses still do not agree, the government has the option of putting together a joint commission with seven members of each house, which will then arrive upon a compromise proposal. The proposal is not binding – it does not have to come up for a vote without amendment, as in the U.S. conference committee system, and it can be trashed altogether by the government. If there is still no agreement at this point, the Assembly can have a fourth reading, which is final and cannot be overridden by the Senate. This would be as if, when the Senate rejects a conference committee report, the House had the ability to pass its version of a bill or the conference report. However, as that example illustrates, the final say can only come after a long legislative process in which the Senate is involved.

The government can also invoke emergency powers to pass bills with one reading, a power that Smith says has been invoked regularly by Sarkozy through his prime minister, François Fillion. There is no presidential veto power.

Party discipline varies widely between the two houses. In the Assembly, party allegiance generally determines outcomes. "Party whipping works -- not 100%, but as well as in the [British] House of Commons," Knapp asserts. The only exception, he says, is when there is not an absolute majority in the Assembly, which has not happened since the electoral changes. In the Senate, party allegiance is much fuzzier. "It's very, very slack," Smith says. "There's nothing like the whipping system you have in the U.K. Parties can't apply that kind of pressure to people except after the event." So while the Assembly holds ultimate sway, this discipline gap makes it possible to hold up legislation in the Senate. This is usually true during Socialist governments – the Senate, like the U.S. one, is traditionally more conservative than its more democratic lower house – but currently the Senate is split rather evenly, giving Socialists an opportunity to kill legislation by winning over swing senators. Smith notes that a government-supported bill was defeated by a single vote in the Senate just last Christmas. In any case, cross-party collaboration – where significant blocs of each party votes on each side – is still unusual in either house. "I can't think that it's happened since the 1960s. Although it's a multiparty system, there's a very clear divide between left and right," Smith says. Thus, bills tend to get passed fast. Stevens notes that in 2007-08, the average bill beginning in the Assembly took 250 days to pass, while the average bill starting in the Senate took 228.

Reform efforts

The 2000 reforms lead to a backlash against presidential power which reached its zenith in late 2007, when President Sarkozy made a speech calling for reforms to return power to parliament. These were passed as constitutional revisions in 2008 by a very thin margin. The reforms include the ability of the president to address parliament and parliament's ability to set its own timetable, which was previously set by the prime minister, in accordance with the president's wishes. To date, both Knapp and Smith agree that the reforms have not had much practical impact, but Smith says that future reforms will likely wait to give the government time to see how the 2008 reforms impact the process.

One exception is constituency reform. The Constitutional Council – which reviews the constitutionality of laws and certifies elections – has been pressuring the government to reduce the gap in size of constituencies for the National Assembly. Smith notes that some urban constituencies have up to 180,000 residents compared to as few at 60,000 in rural areas. This threefold difference is bigger than the biggest gap in the U.S. House at the last census – between Wyoming's 495,304 person at-large district and Montana's 905,316 person one – but obviously far smaller than the difference between Wyoming's and California's (population: 34 million at last census, 37 million today). The council wants a maximum of a 10 percent divergence from the average size in either direction. Much like the redistricting in state legislatures in the U.S., correcting this is politically fraught. Sarkozy and his party have proposed a fix, but socialists in the Senate have blocked it on the grounds that it is intended to enhance the conservatives' electoral prospects.

France's system highlights two means by which the American system could be made safer for large legislation. One is a weakening of the upper house. While by no means disenfranchising the Senate, the French system does give more credence, and the last word, to its proportionally elected body. A constitutional amendment stating that, for example, if a conference report fails to pass the Senate the House can implement a bill without Senate approval would provide a similar out. In France, this weakness has not lead to leaders ignoring the Senate. On the contrary, the Senate's ability to drag out legislation, and its authority on matters concerning local areas, makes satisfying it very important. France's example suggests that the same could be true in the U.S., without allowing the Senate to kill major legislation outright.

The second means is by giving the president more direct control of the legislative process. While the 2008 reforms have moved toward greater parliamentary autonomy, the president of France still effectively controls the timetables and agenda of the parliament, and through his prime minister can even micromanage legislative strategy. The appeal of this in light of the endless negotiations between Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and the White House on how to proceed with health care should be clear. If the White House had the power to control what Congress debates, when, and through what procedures each bill is passed, the process would be sped up considerably.

Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index: 6.9 out of 10. 24th; behind the U.S. at 19.

The Economist Democracy Index, 2008: 8.07 out of 10. 24th place; behind the U.S. at 18th. On "functioning of government," the U.S. also bests France, 7.86 to 7.50.

NationMaster Tax Incidence Ranking: 45.3% of GDP. 5th place; ahead of the U.S. at 17th (29.6% of GDP).

Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom: 64.2 out of 100. 64th place; way behind the U.S. at 8th (78.0). 67,288 constituents per national legislator on average. Well below the U.S. at 547,715 constituents per legislator.

Photo credit: By Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

By Ezra Klein  |  February 22, 2010; 1:03 PM ET
Categories:  The Politics of Nations  
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Next: Low-hanging fruit at the FDA


Is the WaPo experience technical glitches?

Posted by: drindl | February 22, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Thank you very much Mr. Klein.

While this is obviously an opinion blog, the main reasons it makes my daily reading list are the excellent reporting and informative features like this one. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: CarlosXL | February 22, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Dude, you can't just copy the "Government of France" article from Wikipedia and call it a post, ok? Jack Shafer's gonna tear you to shreds.

Posted by: jwellington1 | February 22, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Just went back and looked at the UK piece. IMHO both pieces would be improved if they discussed budget and appropriation processes, rather than focusing solely on policy. I suspect in both countries if the President put in a budget which proposed changes in farm programs, as Obama's done twice now, the idea would come to a vote, rather than have it ignored. I believe, but am not sure, parliament has to vote it up or down, rather than discarding the President's proposal and doing appropriations bills department by department.

Posted by: bharshaw | February 22, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

When I read the conclusion that "France's system highlights two means by which the American system could be made safer for large legislation," I looked back and found no particular discussion of "safety" that might support such a conclusion; in fact, the conclusion itself describes an element of the French system as a "weakness" which might but has not yet "lead to leaders ignoring the Senate." (cited above as "", without its "y") is a corporation having a sole principal (Jeff Quidam). His opinion is as valid as that of anyone else.

Posted by: rmgregory | February 22, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

I think an important aspect about the current French system is that the fifth republic only dates back to 1958. The double tiered system with the PM and the president was created by De Gaulle to help solve the Algerian crisis. The president (De Gaulle) was to stay above the fray and be basically legally untouchable while the Prime Minister did all the dirty work (propose laws, make deals etc.)
For this reason the periods of cohabitation,when the PM and the president are of different parties is extremely awkward for the president. Since the president doesn't propose laws and has no veto power, he is basically powerless over the domestic agenda. This situation has happened twice under Mitterrand and once under Chirac.

Posted by: wstompy | February 22, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

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