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Democratic Structures & Functions in the U.S. vs. France

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  • 0:00 The USA and France
  • 0:57 The Democratic Government
  • 3:14 Democratic Process
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

France and the United States of America have quite a few things in common. One of those is a tradition of democracy. Explore the similarities and differences between our democratic systems, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The USA and France

Omelet. Casserole. Silhouette. Know what these words have in common? They were originally French. But, now we use them here in America. Don't call INTERPOL…we didn't steal them! It's just that France and the United States have had a pretty long relationship. France helped the 13 colonies fight the Revolutionary War, and intellectuals from both countries bounced ideas back and forth that defined liberty and democracy. France gave us the Statue of Liberty to celebrate our centennial anniversary, and we named French fries and French toast in their honor. Okay, that last one wasn't true, but what matters here is that the United States and France together have two of the oldest functioning democracies in the world. Democracy is just one more thing that we share with France, along with antiques, cafés, and roulette.

The Democratic Government

Both the United States and France have democratic governments, meaning that political power rests in the ability of the population to vote on laws and leadership. So, there are similarities in how our governments are set up, but there are also differences. In the United States, the executive branch of the government, or the head of the government, is the president, who is elected to serve a four-year term.

France also has a president. The French president traditionally did not have much power, but this has changed since the mid-20th century. The French president now has more power but still shares the executive office. You see, France also has a prime minister. The president is technically head of the state while the prime minister is the head of the government, which means that they each have separate powers. Although the president appoints the prime minister, they don't always end up coming from the same political party, which means that cooperation is necessary.

As for the legislative branch, the part of government in charge of making laws, both the USA and France have a large, elected body of representatives to do this work. In America, we call this Congress, which has two houses within it, the Senate and House of Representatives. The French legislature, known as their Parliament, also has two different houses. Theirs are the Senate, with 348 representatives who are indirectly elected by an electoral college, and the National Assembly, with 577 elected representatives.

France, like the United States, also has a judicial branch of government, in charge of upholding the law. However, the French judiciary is not set up to be as separate from the other branches of government as we're used to in the USA. The French supreme court, called the Cour de Cassation, interprets the law, but the power to challenge the constitutionality of new laws, which is known as judicial review, is actually held by an entirely different court, called the Constitutional Council. In the United States, the Supreme Court does both of these things.

Democratic Process

So, that's basically what government looks like in both countries. The United States and France both have long histories of democracy, but that has meant different things for each country. You see, while the United States has had one civil war that forced some changes in how we do things, France has had several revolutions, was turned into an empire under Napoleon, and was even invaded by Nazis during World War II. So, they've had to re-write constitutions and reorganize their government several times.

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