The Government of the French Republic: Overview & History

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  • 0:02 Structure of French Government
  • 0:36 Executive Branch
  • 1:49 Legislative Branch
  • 3:19 Judicial Branch
  • 4:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we discover the three branches of the government of the French Republic and how the writing of the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic changed the nature of these institutions.

Structure of French Government

From Hammurabi's Code to the constitutions of today, law and government have come a long way. In Hammurabi's time, for example, a king ruled with an iron fist and his word was law. Kings were often seen as gods and if a weak one happened to inherit the throne, he was simply deposed by a stronger man.

Thousands of years later, we would develop complicated government structures with checks and balances, division of labor, and long legal histories that tried to protect the weak as well as the strong. In this lesson, we'll briefly explore the various branches of the government of France.

Executive Branch

The executive branch of the French Republic is the most powerful branch of government in France and this is usually what someone is referring to when they speak of 'the government.' It is made up of three different parts: the president, the prime minister, and the cabinet. Of these three, the president is the most powerful. This is largely because the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic, which still is the highest law in France, was designed specifically by President Charles de Gaulle to empower the presidency at the expense of the then-tumultuous and unstable French Parliament.

The French president has the power to do all sorts of things unilaterally, from declaring war to appointing all the rest of the executive branch. One such position is the prime minister. The prime minister governs the French Parliament and is essentially the president's man or woman in the legislature. He or she can introduce bills on behalf of the president and the rest of the executive branch and consults the president on cabinet positions.

The third part of the executive branch, the cabinet, is made up of heads of the various ministries of the French government. These ministries divide government services and duties between one another to create ministries like the Ministry of Finance and Public Accounts or the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.

Legislative Branch

A second branch of French government is the legislative branch. The legislative branch is divided into two houses: the National Assembly and the Senate. The National Assembly is the more powerful of the two branches and it can even force a president to resign if they pass a motion censuring the president, though this rarely occurs. Instead, the National Assembly is more preoccupied with crafting and amending laws which are introduced by either private members or the prime minister.

The National Assembly contains 577 members. While most of these represent rough blocks of about 100,000 French citizens, some also represent French territories or overseas dependencies. And 11 members even represent French nationals living abroad. Members of the national assembly serve 5-year terms.

The other half of the legislative branch is the Senate. The Senate is a much smaller house, made up of 348 members. Rather than being directly elected by the French people, senators are elected indirectly by the roughly 150,000 Grand Electors of France, generally important regional figures like parliamentarians or regional counselors. The Senate's main duties are similar to that of the National Assembly's: creating and/or amending laws introduced by its members or the executive branch.

After various amendments and debates, both the National Assembly's and the Senate's version of the bill have to agree. If they cannot reach a compromise, then the National Assembly is allowed to break the tie.

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