The Constitution of 4 October 1958 governs the functioning of the institutions of the Fifth Republic.

The Constitution has been revised several times, for example pertaining to the election of the President of the French Republic by direct universal suffrage (1962); the establishment of the Economic and Monetary Union; the equal access of men and women to elected offices and functions; the recognition of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (1999); the reduction of the presidential term (2000); and, most recently, to the modifications made following the adoption of the Charter for the Environment (2005).

The President of the Republic

The Head of State is elected for five years by direct universal suffrage (five-term mandate established following the referendum of 24 September 2000).

Emmanuel Macron was elected eighth President of the French Republic on 7 May 2017.

The President of the Republic appoints the Prime Minister, who proposes the members of government to the President, who then appoints them (Article 8 of the Constitution).

The President chairs the Council of Ministers, enacts laws and is the head of the armed forces. The President can dissolve the National Assembly, and, in the event of serious crisis, exercise emergency powers (Article 16 of the Constitution).

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The Constitutional Council

The Constitutional Council is a jurisdictional institution. It has nine members. A special aspect of the Constitutional Council is the application of its decisions to eminently political matters: this may be ensuring that the law complies with the Constitution, especially as the latter protects rights and freedoms; or ensuring that national elections are organized fairly and transparently (presidential elections, legislative and senate elections, referendums); or checking that the conditions that justify the implementation of Article 16 of the Constitution (emergency powers of the President of the Republic in the event of major crisis) are met or are still met after a lapse of time of one month.

Since Article 61-1, created by constitutional review of 23 July 2008, took effect, litigants may also submit a case to it, upon referral by the Conseil d’État or Court of Cassation, on the constitutionality of legislative provisions already enacted.

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The Prime Minister and the Government

The Prime Minister

The Prime Minister is accountable to the Parliament (Article 20 of the Constitution). He/she directs the actions of the Government action and ensures the implementation of legislation (Article 21 of the Constitution).

The Government and its make-up

The ministers are appointed by the President of the Republic, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister (Article 8 of the Constitution).

Under the leadership of the Prime Minister, the Government determines and conducts the nation’s policies.

The Government is made up of the Prime Minister, ministres d’État, full ministers, ministers delegate, ministers of state and high commissioners. The purview, competences, responsibilities and tasks of each minister are not fixed, unlike in other countries such as the United States. They are freely determined by the Prime Minister and the President of the Republic: as such, the team can be shaped to take into account current political balances, as well as the priorities they intend to implement.

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The Parliament

The Parliament has two houses:

  • The Senate, elected through indirect universal suffrage and renewable by half every three years. The last election took place in September 2017. There are 348 senators.
  • The National Assembly, with 577 deputies elected by direct universal suffrage for five years. The last election took place in June 2017. 

The two houses, in addition to their role monitoring the Government, draw up and vote on laws. In this respect, and in the event of disagreement, the National Assembly has the last word.

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The justice system

France’s judicial authorities, which safeguard individual freedom (Article 66 of the Constitution), are divided into distinct entities between the legal jurisdictions responsible for settling disputes between individuals, and the administrative jurisdictions for disputes between citizens and the public authorities.

Judicial order includes two types of jurisdictions.

Civil jurisdictions:

Ordinary jurisdictions (tribunal de grande instance/regional court) and specialized jurisdictions (tribunal d’instance/regional court, tribunal de commerce/commercial court, tribunal des affaires de sécurité sociale/social security affairs court and the Conseil des prud'hommes/employment tribunal, which settles disputes between employees and employers).

Criminal jurisdictions:

These jurisdictions deal with three levels of offences:

  • minor offences judged by the local criminal court (tribunal de police);
  • offences judged by the criminal court (tribunal correctionnel);
  • crimes judged by the assize court (cour d’assises).

There is also a specific jurisdiction that deals with both civil and criminal matters: the children’s court.

The Court of Cassation, the highest judicial body, is responsible for examining appeals submitted against judgments handed down by the courts of appeal.

At the top of the administrative jurisdictions is the Conseil d’État, which is the court of last resort to judge the legality of administrative acts. It is also consulted for opinion by the Government concerning bills and certain draft decrees.

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The Economic, Social and Environmental Council

The Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE) is a consultative assembly whose primary purpose is to get civil society involved in the government’s economic, social and environmental policies.

It is France’s third-largest assembly, and fosters dialogue between socio-professional categories, helps evaluate public policies that fall under its area of competence, promotes constructive dialogue with its counterparts - at regional, local and international levels - and helps inform citizens.

The 233 members of the CESE are divided into three main groups: the first brings together those involved in business and social dialogue; the second represents those involved in community life and social and regional cohesion. The third, in line with the aims of the Grenelle Environment Forum, is made up of representatives of associations and foundations working in the field of environmental protection and sustainable development. Matters can be referred to the CESE by the Prime Minister:, the President of the National Assembly, the President of the Senate and, since the introduction of the organic act of June 2010, by citizen petition.

Its headquarters are located at the Palais d’Iéna, in Paris.

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Updated : 14 December 2022