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Joseph de Sousa Somerville College
'During non-cohabitation, the French president is an elected dictator; during cohabitation, he is a powerless monarch'. Discuss.
If a dictator is taken to be a ruler unconstrained by law and legislature, then the assessment of Philip Williams that "the French Parliament once one of the strongest in Europe, has become one of the weakest" may hold significant validity (Williams, 1969, quoted in Coles, Le Gales, Levy, 2005 p.90). In order to test whether French Fifth Republic produces either an elected dictator or a powerless monarch, it will be necessary to consider both 'normal' periods, in which the president is supported by a favourable parliamentary majority, and those of cohabitation, in which the president is opposed by a majority in parliament and thus forced to appoint an adversarial Prime minister. I shall attempt to argue that, in practice, the Fifth Republic functions as a monocratic government during periods of non-cohabitation, although strengthening exogenous limits have created an increasingly constrained framework in which later presidents have operated. However, during cohabitation, the prerogatives of the President are not impeded to the point of leaving him powerless, instead resulting in a form of segmented government. While the notion of an 'elected dictator' might be oxymoronic, given the binding legal nature of elections, there is certainly some validity in the suggestion that French government operates as a monocratic presidency. In such a case, the executive is controlled by a single person, during 'normal' conditions, in which the President is supported by a majority in the legislature. As John Frears has commented "the general aura of the presidency... with its disdain for political parties and electioneering, its self-consciously regal-style, the absence of direct public accountability and the increasingly wide range of policies and decisions which come within the personal ambit of the President, gives legitimacy to the phrase 'presidentking'" (Frears, quoted in Elgie, Griggs, 2000, p.34). One basis for supporting this view of an executive dominated by a single person has been "the awkward tendency of presidents to involve themselves in whatever seemed to them to matter" (Stevens, 2003, p.84). The tradition of presidential grands projets, such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris or Mitterrand's personal selection of the architect to oversee the construction of the iconic glass pyramid during the conversion of the Louvre from the Ministry of Finance into a world-leading museum, is symptomatic of this phenomenon (Stevens, 2003, p.84). On a more explicitly political level, de Gaulle's decision not to devalue the franc in 1967 and Mitterrand's personal responsibility for fiscal austerity package in 1983 demonstrate the capability of presidents to involve themselves in both the foreign and domestic spheres (Elgie, Griggs, 2000, p.36). As such, there appears to be few sectoral constraints on the president during periods of noncohabitation, with a combination of personal will and political expediency affecting presidential involvement rather than the actions of other political actors. An analysis of the practical application of the 1958 Constitution suggests, as Chabal and Fraisseix noted, "presidential predominance relegating the government and prime minister to the level of stooges executing 'presidential ukases'" (Elgie, Griggs, 2003, p.35). Under Article 8, the President appoints the Prime minister who in turn proposes the names of Ministers to the President. With the correct political conditions, namely a clear and disciplined majority in parliament, the president can achieve unswerving loyalty from the cabinet and "reduce the prime minister to the position of a chief of staff" (Duverger, 1980, p.184). However, such a clause alone is suggestive of co-operative shared governance with the prime minister, not monocratic presidentialism. The true demonstration of said power has been the ability of presidents to push beyond their constitutional authority and dismiss prime ministers. De Gaulle's discharging of Pompidou, Pompidou's removal of Chaban-Delmas and Mitterrand's sacking of Rocard all serve as evidence (Elgie, Griggs, 2000, p.35; Knapp,
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