How Does “cohabitation” Work in French Politics? - Latest Global News

How Does “cohabitation” Work in French Politics?

President Emmanuel Macron’s surprise decision to dissolve parliament means he may be forced to share power with a government formed by his opponents – in France, this is called cohabitation – and for the first time, the far right could also be involved.

Macron may be hoping that French voters will refuse to give the Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, a governing mandate in the snap parliamentary elections scheduled for June 30 and July 7. He is also counting on moderate parties to join forces to keep the RN out of power.

But the RN is already the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, with 88 of 577 seats, and is enjoying real momentum following its overwhelming victory among French voters in Sunday’s European Parliament elections.

How common is cohabitation?

There were three examples of this during the Fifth Republic: in 1986-88, when President François Mitterrand’s Socialists lost the parliamentary elections to the centre-right party of Jacques Chirac, who later became Prime Minister; in 1993-95, when Mitterrand’s party lost again to the right and he appointed Edouard Balladur as Prime Minister; and in 1997-2002, when Chirac, now President, took a fateful gamble by calling new elections, which resulted in a Socialist government led by Lionel Jospin.

There have been no other examples since then. Presidential terms have been reduced from seven to five years, matching the term of parliament, and election dates have been synchronized so that legislative votes immediately follow presidential elections and often confirm the outcome. Macron’s snap election could change all that.

Who elects the Prime Minister?

Technically, the president chooses the prime minister, regardless of how many seats the opposition has in parliament. However, the prime ministers he chooses and the governments he forms must have the support of the National Assembly, otherwise they can be overthrown by a vote of no confidence.

In a scenario where the president’s party wins an absolute or relative majority, the president retains control over the appointment of the prime minister. If an opposition group – in this case it would likely be the RN with Jordan Bardella as its candidate for prime minister – wins an absolute majority, it has the power to impose its own choice.

In the more likely scenario of no absolute majority, the president can influence the appointment but must negotiate with the other actors to form a government. Experts point out that the French constitution does not contain a specific formula for forming a government, which leaves the president room for maneuver.

However, there is no guarantee that such a government will survive, and Macron could once again find himself in the situation of having to govern without a clear majority – a situation that is already causing him problems in his second term since 2022.

How much power do the Prime Minister and the Government have?

Contrary to perception, quite a lot. Macron has led a very executive, Gaullist presidency and has kept tight control of the government. But the constitution clearly states that it is the prime minister who directs the work of the government and ensures that the laws are implemented. The government is even responsible for some aspects of defense, although the president is commander-in-chief, controls the nuclear buttons and dominates foreign policy.

Provided the government has a working majority, it will have considerable room for maneuver in implementing its agenda.

Although Chirac cobbled together a slim majority as prime minister, he managed to reverse many of the changes pushed through by his left-wing predecessors, including the nationalization of companies and the introduction of a semi-proportional electoral system. Balladur, also on the right, increased the contribution period for a full pension to 40 years and continued privatization. On the left, the Jospin government pushed through the maximum 35-hour week.

If the RN government wins an absolute majority, it could theoretically implement its programme, which includes strict immigration restrictions, taking back control of energy policy from Brussels and introducing a “national preference” that favours French citizens over non-citizens in public sector jobs and social housing.

However, if the RN were merely the largest party but did not have an absolute majority, its prime minister would be vulnerable to votes of no confidence.

Can the President impose restrictions on the government?

To some extent. The president’s main limiting power is to call elections or referendums, but he (they were all men) can only call an election once every 12 months, according to French electoral rules. The head of state can also refuse to sign government decrees, but the executive can get around that by turning them into ordinary laws and then using the so-called Article 49.3 of the constitution, in which the government submits itself to a vote of confidence, to quickly pass them. Ironically, this is a procedure Macron and his premiers have frequently used since 2022 to outwit a recalcitrant National Assembly.

Since the president also controls diplomacy and national security, he can, for example, prevent an RN government from radically changing France’s stance on Ukraine or reducing French support for Kyiv.

Finally, the president can use his public platform, including the right to address the nation on television, to criticize the ruling government. Mitterrand often used his position of power to act as the de facto opposition leader.

Can marital relationships succeed?

The division of executive power is attractive to voters who want to see their politicians constrained by checks and balances. It does not necessarily lead to political paralysis, although it is difficult to imagine Macron doing anything to support an RN government. In fact, his intention may be to show French voters that the RN is incapable so that they do not elect Le Pen as president when his term ends in 2027.

A Macron ally raised the possibility that if the RN wins an absolute majority, it could refuse to form a government unless Macron resigns as president. In that case, France would be heading not toward cohabitation but toward a political and institutional crisis.

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