How Government works
Enacted on 4th October 1958, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic is largely based on the principles set out by General de Gaulle during his famous speech in Bayeux on 16th June 1946: the accountability of the Government to the Parliament, made up of two chambers, with a stronger parliamentary system, and the accountability of the president of the Republic to the people. See the Constitution
Appointed by the President of the Republic (Head of State), the Prime Minister is the Head of Government. He "directs the actions of the Government" (article 21 of the Constitution) and in principle sets out the essential political guidelines which, except in the case of cohabitation, are those of the President of the Republic. He must also ensure the coordination of Government action and prevent different ministers from taking contradictory initiatives through his arbitration. He is not the hierarchical superior of the other ministers. He may never force them to take a decision which they are unwilling to take responsibility for, but he may suggest their dismissal to the President in the event of serious misconduct. This role of overseeing Government action is facilitated by certain components: the Prime Minister, in the name of the Government, "shall have at its disposal the civil service" (art. 20), internal services located at the Hôtel Matignon (General Secretariat of the Government, cabinet, etc.) and a large number of services assigned to it.
The Prime Minister ensures the implementation of laws and exercises regulatory power, subject to the signature by the Head of State of ordinances and decrees which have been deliberated upon in the Council of Ministers. He may, in exceptional circumstances, replace the President of the Republic as chairman of the Council of Ministers. He is also responsible for national defence, even though the broad guidelines are often set by the President of the Republic.
The ministers and ministers of state are appointed by the President of the Republic upon a proposal of the Prime Minister. Their powers are centred around two main missions. On the one hand, the ministers head a ministerial department. In addition, ministers are responsible for the supervision of public legal entities acting within their ministerial department's field of competence. In principle, ministers do not hold regulatory power (that is the power to dictate general standards), except in the administration over their own ministerial department. Regulatory power is generally exercised by the Prime Minister, who may delegate the exercise of this power to his ministers. However, the latter must countersign the decrees of the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister pertaining to the areas falling within their competence.
On the other hand, ministers are entrusted with a political mission. Their primary role is one of impetus and implementation of Government policy. Participation in political life was traditionally part of their activities under the Third and Fourth Republics. Now, with the exception of election periods during which the ministers are enlisted, the political aspect of their activity is limited to the Council of Ministers and Parliament where discussion is opened up on a particular aspect of Government activity.
The general policy statement
The general policy statement is a tradition in the Fifth Republic but is not an obligation laid down by the Constitution. Article 49, paragraph 1 stipulates that the Prime Minister can commit the Government by means of a vote of approval by members of parliament on its programme or “potentially on a general policy statement”. The Prime Minister uses this speech to imprint a style and adopt the role of head of the parliamentary majority.
The Government’s commitment is not compulsory when it comes into office. Therefore, some Governments have never made such commitments and accordingly drew legitimacy solely from appointment by the President of the Republic, or, as in the case of the ninth parliament (1988 to 1993) because they did not have an absolute majority in the National Assembly. However, since 1993, all Governments have asked for a vote of confidence by the National Assembly within a few days of appointment.
In particular, several Governments have asked for a vote of confidence by the National Assembly in relation to a special event. In total, Article 49, paragraph 1 has been exercised 35 times since 1958.
Provisions of Article 49 of the Constitution
Title V of the Constitution of 4 October 1958 covers relations between the Parliament and the Government (Article 34 to 51-2). Article 49 stipulates the arrangements for control by the Parliament including three options for calling into question the Government’s commitment before the National Assembly:
- when the Government asks for a vote of confidence on its programme or makes a statement of general policy. In the event of a negative vote by the absolute majority of votes cast, the Government must resign;
- by the tabling of a censure motion by one-tenth of the members of parliament, adopted by the absolute majority of the members of the National Assembly. The Government is consequently overturned;
- when the Government applies Article 49.3 of the Constitution. Members of parliament can table a censure motion and vote on it within 48 hours to object to legislation being adopted without a vote. In this case, the Government is also required to resign.
Council of MinistersThe Council of Ministers is the collegial body which brings together all ministers (Ministers of State normally sit on the Council of Ministers when matters which they are responsible for are discussed) and is a means of demonstrating the Government’s unity. The General Secretary of the Government and the General Secretary of the President of the Republic also sit on this body. It is the only government body defined by the Constitution.
The Council of Ministers meets on a weekly basis usually on Wednesdays, under the chairmanship of the President of the Republic, at the Elysée Palace. The agenda is decided jointly by the President and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister proposes and the President approves the agenda.
The meeting is comprised of three stages:
- the first stage focuses on texts of general interest – bills, ordinances, decrees – for which deliberation by the Council of Ministers is necessary;
- during the second stage, individual decisions are covered mainly relating to the appointment of senior civil servants;
- the third stage is generally devoted to a presentation by a minister on the state of progress of a reform which he/she is in charge of, a speech by the President who may request the participants’ opinion on a particular point. The Minister of Foreign Affairs gives a weekly update on the international situation.