Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
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.
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.
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.
The third branch of the French government is the judicial branch. The judicial branch is charged with administering the laws created by the other two branches while also simultaneously ensuring that the laws of the other two branches do not violate the French Constitution or previous statutory law. The judiciary itself is broken up into two branches: the judicial branch and the administrative branch. The judicial branch is in charge with deciding the various criminal and civil cases which abound in France each year.
There are various levels of courts which deal with various levels of offenses. For example, the district courts deal only with civil cases under 10,000 euros and minor misdemeanors like drug possession or petty theft. Regional courts deal with higher-grade crimes, while the most heinous - like murder or rape - are dealt with by assize courts, which meet intermittently throughout the year.
The highest court of the judiciary's judicial branch is the Court of Cassation. This court does not hear and decide cases itself, but instead determines that the law is being followed in each case.
The judiciary's administrative branch deals with virtually all other, non-criminal legal cases. These can include cases as seemingly unimportant as complaints against city bylaws to important suits regarding public domain. The administrative branch's reach is so expansive that it settles over 100,000 cases each year! The administrative branch's highest body, the Council of State, is in charge with examining cases of election fraud, and cases brought against the French government's highest officials, as well as ensuring the law is followed in cases decided by lower courts.
The government of France, much like our own, is divided into three branches. Unlike our own, though, the executive branch is far more powerful than the other branches. This is partially due to the writing of the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic, which was designed to empower the presidency at the expense of the Parliament. The executive branch also consists of the prime minister, the president's man in the legislature, and cabinet, who govern the various ministries of the French government.
The French legislative branch is made up of two houses, the National Assembly and the Senate, both of which are primarily preoccupied with creating and amending laws for France. Those laws are administrated by the French judiciary. Its judicial branch decides criminal and civil cases while the administrative branch decides all other legal issues.
When this lesson is over, you should be able to:
- Identify the Constitution of the Fifth Republic in France of 1958
- Recognize the functions of the three branches of government
- Understand why the executive branch is considered the most powerful of the three
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