The Presidency in France and the United States: A Comparison of their Constitutions

Introduction

There is much to learn in a comparison between the French and American presidencies. In an earlier essay, I compared the beginning of these two presidencies. Even though both countries are democratic republics and both have a presidents, they also have some notable differences. This essay is devoted to pointing up the constitutional differences between the two presidencies.

François Hollande (above) is the current President of France. Barack Obama (below) is the current President of the United States.
François Hollande (above) is the current President of France. Barack Obama (below) is the current President of the United States. | Source

Constitutions

Both France and the United States have a written constitution. The U.S Constitution is much older, having gone into effect in 1789. As for France’s constitution, it was the product of Charles de Gaulle’s ascendency to power in France. One important difference is that France had an office of president before the current Fifth French Republic. The current French president, François Hollande, is the 24th president of France since France's first president, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and the seventh since Charles de Gaulle. However, it was the written U.S. Constitution that created the office of the American presidency. This results in a condition that the French presidency is not as strongly as rooted in its constitution as it is in the United States.

Can the President Change the Constitution?--American presidents have no formal role in the amending of the United States Constitution. However, the French president in conjunction with the prime minister can make amendment proposals to be approved by a majority in both houses of the French parliament. That formal proposal must then be either ratified by referendum or by a three-fifths vote of a congress made up of members from both houses of Parliament.

Constitutional Requirements--The United States has three constitutional requirements for the president: that he be natural-born, that he be at least 35 years old, and has been a resident of the United States for at least 14 years. There are no such requirements for the French president. Rather, in order to be a legitimate candidate, the French president must get the signatures of several local officials. There has been an ongoing controversy about whether or not President Obama was natural born or not. However, in France this would probably not have been a major issue. Practically speaking, both are alike in that neither presidential candidates in France nor the United States are likely to be seriously considered as candidates unless they are a member of the major national parties.

French presidential elections almost always take place in two rounds. Most American presidential elections are resolved by the Electoral College in a one-round election.
French presidential elections almost always take place in two rounds. Most American presidential elections are resolved by the Electoral College in a one-round election. | Source

Elections

Unlike the American president, the French president is the only national official that is directly elected by all the electorate of France. In the United States, both the president and vice president are nationally elected, however they are not popularly elected like the French president but are rather elected by an elite group of voters called the Electoral College. The US president can be elected twice to a four-year term; for the French president he can serve no more than two five-year terms.

Number of Executives

A major distinguishing feature between the U.S. and French presidents is the number of executives. For the United States, there is only one executive, the President that is charged in the Constitution to “take care that the laws are faithfully executed.” As for France, there are two executives: the president and the prime minister. However, while it is true that the French constitution is one of a “dual executive” there is little doubt that the president is the dominant executive in that system.

United and Divided Government

In both the French and American political systems, the president can face a legislature where their party is not in the majority. This is a situation that never happens to an executive, like the British prime minister. Since World War II, most American presidents have had to govern with a legislature where at least one of the houses of the legislature has a party opposite theirs in the majority. This places great limits on the American president. However, he still has an array of constitutional powers that allow him to function whether or not his party is the ruling party in the legislature.

As for the French president, when his party is the majority in the legislature, he can force his agenda onto the National Assembly because he has control over the prime minister (that is, he can dismiss him). However when the French president's party is not in control of the legislature—a situation that the French refer to as “cohabitation”—the president tends to assume a less dominant role. Cohabitation makes a big difference for a French president. With cohabitation, he is generally weaker than an American president; without it, he is stronger.

The Executive and the Legislature

One of the most important distinctions between a presidential and parliamentary form of government is the relationship between the executive and the legislature. In a parliamentary system, the executive, the prime minister, is a creature of the legislature. In fact, he is a legislator, elected from a constituency just like other legislators. Furthermore, the legislature can dismiss the government through a vote of no confidence.

However, with a presidential government, the president is notably separate and independent of the legislature. In the US, Congress cannot dismiss the president, although they can impeach him if he has been involved in “bribery, treason, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The American president can dismiss Congress, but only if Congress cannot agree on a time to adjourn. This is a power that the American president has never used in that both houses of Congress have historically come to agreement on the time of dismissal. As for the French president, he can dismiss the national legislature once in a 12 month period. This may or may not work to the French president’s advantage as it did not work to the advantage of French President Jacques Chirac when he dismissed the National Assembly in 1997. Voters punished him by electing a leftist government.

VETO--As for the French president, he cannot stop legislation, but can only impede its progress. And the American president can have his vetoes overridden. However, presidential veto overrides are rare.
VETO--As for the French president, he cannot stop legislation, but can only impede its progress. And the American president can have his vetoes overridden. However, presidential veto overrides are rare.

Lobbying the Legislature

Because of divided government, American presidents might often have to lobby individual members of Congress to get a bill through. However, the French president has at his disposal several constitutional features that allow him greater unity in the legislature to advance his agenda if cohabitation is the rule such as dismissing an uncooperative prime minister or dissolving the legislature. As for the American president, he has no prime minister to dismiss and he cannot dissolve a Congress, but can only dismiss them and then only if they cannot agree to a time of adjournment. However, the American president appears to have more power with respect to its veto power in that the French president’s veto can only delay legislation; he cannot halt it like the American’s president. Still, the American president’s veto is not absolute: the Congress can override his veto with a two-thirds override in both houses of Congress.

Bicameralism

Both The French and US legislature are bicameral which means that they have two chambers. In the US Congress, the president can benefit from bicameralism. In the US Senate, senators hold an absolute veto on bills passed by the lower House (although because of the Cloture Rule, an extraordinary majority of 60 is needed for passage of bills). Because the minority party has so much leverage in the Senate, this will also allow the president leverage if his party is in the minority in the Senate. Such leverage was important to Democrat President Bill Clinton in his 1995 opposition to the Republican Contract with America (pejoratively referred to by the Democrats as the “Contract on America”) and important to Republican President George W. Bush is getting through the Senate a Homeland Security Bill.

The upper chamber of France cannot hold a bill hostage like the US Senate can. Much like the British House of Lords, France’s second chamber can only delay legislation passed by the National Assembly; it cannot halt it. Hence, its veto is only a temporary one whereas the veto power of the US Senate over bills passed by the House is absolute.

Succession

What happens if the president dies or resigns? France and the United States handle these situations very differently. The US Constitution provides for a “vice-president” to succeed the president, should the president die, resign or be impeached and removed. By statute, Congress has determined the presidential line of succession. However, in France, if the president dies or resigns from office, a new election will be held quickly to fill the office. There is no vice president in France like there is in the United States

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