Category Archives: France

Comoros – Presidential Election Threatens Fragile Stability

Dubbed the ‘coup-coup islands’ due to a legacy of violent government takeovers, the small African island nation of Comoros (population: 800.000) has long been one of the most politically unstable countries in the world. Upon attaining independence in 1975, one of the four Comorian islands – Mayotte – voted to remain part of France, and in 2011 became a French Overseas Department. While the French incorporation of Mayotte was considered illegal by the United Nations, the significantly higher standards of living on this island stimulated secessionist aspirations on the two smaller Comorian islands – Anjouan and Mohéli – which also desired to be released from the largest island of Grande Comore, and to be reunited with France. After nearly three decades marred by successive coups, violent uprisings, and enduring economic malaise, in 2002 a unique electoral system that provides for a rotating presidency between the three islands was adopted. Every five years, a president from a different Comorian island is elected for a single term. Presidential elections are held under the French two-round system, but in the first round only voters on the island delivering the next president can participate. The three candidates with the most votes take part in a second round, in which all eligible Comorian voters can cast a ballot.

The first elections under the new system were won by Azali Assoumani from Grande Comore, who ruled the archipelago until 2006. Subsequently, presidents were elected from Anjouan (2006 – 2011) and Mohéli (2011 – 2016). While the economic situation on Comoros remains dire, and political violence has not been completely eradicated, the fact that all presidents elected under the new system were able to complete their term in office is widely regarded as a considerable achievement.

On 21 February 2016, the first round of a new presidential election was held on Grande Comore, which according to the constitution would deliver the next president. The outcome was close, and the top three candidates all obtained between 14 and 18 per cent of the votes. Among them was former president Assoumani, who in 1999 had staged a successful military coup, and contemporary vice-president Mohamed Ali Soilihi, who emerged as the winner of the first round. The second round of voting, which was held on 10 April 2016, again resulted in a very close outcome: Assoumani was declared the winner with 40,98% of votes, while Soilihi finished second with 39,87% of votes. While international observers considered the election to be free and fair, and the UN Secretary General congratulated the Comorian people with a peaceful election process, numerous irregularities were reported from the island of Anjouan, among which broken ballot boxes, accusations of ballot stuffing, and acts of violence. As a result, the Comoros constitutional court ordered a partial re-run of the election on this island, which occurred on 15 May 2016. Only 2% of the Comorian electorate was allowed to participate in the re-run, which did not produce a significantly different result: Assoumani remained the winner with 41,43% of votes, while Soilihi remained a close challenger with 39,66% of ballots cast.

The recent Comorian presidential election once more underscored the fragile political situation in the archipelago, which remains plagued by inter-island hostilities and separatism. The lack of a single Comorian identity, as well as the divisive effects of the integration of Mayotte into metropolitan France, continue to undermine economic and political progress in the island nation. Economic growth dwindled from 3,5% to 1% over the last two years, and while the new political system has put an end to the series of violent coups, it has not solved the formidable challenges and obstacles that continue to beset the Union of the Comoros.

France – 2016: President Hollande’s annus horribilis

2016 is turning out to be President Hollande’s Annus horribilis.  The incumbent President’s misfortunes in 2016 appear compounded by the quickening pace of political decline, as the 2017 presidential election approaches. As this blog entry is written, French President François Hollande appears to face an impossible dilemma: to be the first President not to stand for re-election, or to stand as candidate with the danger of not reaching the second round.[1] Hollande’s predicament might be interpreted in terms of a series of inappropriate responses to specific events, in which case the Socialist President is a victim of the normal rhythms of extraordinary times. There are any number of key events to choose from: we consider the aborted constitutional reform of 2016 below.  Hollande’s descent might also be interpreted as the culmination of a series of design faults: the original sin of the mode of election in 2012; the result of a particular style and discourse; the unintended consequences of the political responses to the terrorist attacks on 2015; the longer term impact of economic crisis and the failure to bring down unemployment. All of these factors recall the weak political, partisan and sociological basis of support from the outset. To understand Hollande’s predicament we need thereby to mix levels of analysis: to capture the structural, partisan and political bases of the current presidential weakness, as well as individual responses.

Hollande’s original sin lay in the manner of his election as President in 2012. His 2012 presidential campaign was fought in large part as an anti-Sarkozy referendum, designed to preserve an early opinion poll lead that was mainly built upon a popular rejection of Sarkozy. A majority of second round voters (51%, compared with 31% in 2007) declared that they had voted negatively (for the candidate best placed to prevent the less preferred candidate from being elected) and only a minority declared they had voted positively for their candidate (49%, compared with 69% in 2007). [2] His candidacy was based on his strategic political positioning as being a ‘normal’ candidate and president, a style deliberately adopted to be the counterpart of the flamboyant Sarkozy. Once elected President, however, Hollande experienced a rapid descent from popularity, much faster and more thorough than any previous president. The failure to act during the first 100 days represented a lost opportunity.  He was trapped by the frame of normality during a period of economic crisis; the attraction of a “normal” President who ignored the economic tempest in a wave of enforced optimism soon wore off.   For the 2012 electoral series was fought in a context of economic crisis; voters were almost as pessimistic about the ability of Hollande to ‘improve the situation of the country’ (26%), as they were about Sarkozy (25%). [3]  Hollande’s claim to normality had also involved a commitment to keep his private life out of the public domain, but the public jealously displayed by Valerie Trierweiler, Hollande’s erstwhile partner, destroyed this aspiration very early on. Hollande’s personal judgement was then called into question by a succession of scandals involving leading figures of the Socialist-led government. By far the most important scandal was that of Jerome Cahouzec, the first Budget Minister whose reputation for integrity was destroyed by evidence of a secret bank account in Switzerland (despite his repeated denials).

I have argued elsewhere that the Hollande presidency has been undermined by the weakness of a consistent legitimising discourse[4]. It is unclear to many what Hollande represents. There is a weakness of story-telling, the construction of a coherent narrative to describe and justify governmental action. Is Hollande a traditional social-democrat? There was certainly a sustained effort during the Ayrault premiership (2012-2014) to revive a social-democratic discourse, and to give substance to this by using social-democratic instruments such as the annual social conference between the government, the business associations and the trade unions; the principle of negotiated solutions to labour laws and training, and the state’s involvement in attempting to reduce unemployment by subsidised jobs for young people. The core problem lay in the inability to resolve the most intractable policy issue of them all, unemployment. Hollande’s commitment in 2013 to ‘reverse’ the rising level of unemployment provided a hostage to fortune. By early 2016, no major diminution of the unemployment rate had occurred, with France comparing unfavourably with her main EU partners and competitors. Hollande did not convince as a social-democratic president, not least because of his inability to resolve this most intractable problem of domestic policy.  Was he more successful as a ‘social-liberal’? Hollande began the ‘social-liberal’ turn in 2013 (when a governmental programme, the CICE, first reduced various business taxes) faced with evidence of France’s sluggish economic performance and the tense relations with the business community. The main programme was the pacte de responsabilité in January 2014: 50 billion euros of reductions in business taxes, against the (unfulfilled) expectation that firms would begin hiring workers again. If the social-liberal orientation was determined by Hollande’s choices, the responsibility for justification lay with premier Valls (from April 2014) and increasingly from the ambitious minister of Finance Emmanuel Macron, who steered his own liberalisation programme in 2015.

At the end of December 2015 Hollande obtained some of his best poll ratings since taking office[5]. Hollande has enjoyed the most success with a Republican narrative, centred on education, citizenship, the role of France in the international arena and the Nation. In 2015, Hollande appeared as the embodiment of national unity against the internal and external terrorist threat. The right tone was struck, in the mass rallies of January 11th 2015 in defence of the Republic after the attacks on Charlie- Hebdo and in the convoking of Congress in Versailles, just days after the November 13th outrage.  In his address to the Congress, Hollande received a standing ovation. He also made a dual commitment: to reform the 1958 constitution to provide a firmer footing for the state of urgency[6]; and to deprive terrorists of French nationality (initially those with dual nationality, later on all French nationals). These two related but distinct articles were imagined in order to provide a firm response to terrorist attacks, but also to embarrass the political right into supporting constitutional reform (Hollande’s previous attempt to amend the constitution, to include the reform of regional languages, had failed in 2015 due to the obstruction of the Senate).

Once the dust of the Versailles speech had settled, the dual offensive was doubly offensive to the ‘usual suspects’ (the frondeurs, Martine Aubry, the Socialist mayor of Lille, the ‘left of the left’), but also more generally to Socialist deputies, if not to broader public opinion (which supported the position adapted by the executive on both counts). The proposal to refer to the state of urgency in the 1958 constitution was criticised by some lawyers as providing a constitutional basis for what is by definition an irregular process[7], but these arguments left public opinion indifferent. Hollande’s manoeuvre was designed to rally support from across the political spectrum, in particular from the Republicans whose approval would be necessary to allow any constitutional reform. Here was a potentially popular reform, albeit one that divided constitutionalists, aroused opposition to some of its elements from the Constitutional Council[8] and appeared to strengthen administrative circuits and the police at the expense of legal authority and the judges.  The article would have consecrated the power of the French president to determine what constitutes a state of urgency and minimise parliamentary involvement.

The controversy aroused by the State of emergency was as nothing compared to that of the proposal to deprive terrorists of their French nationality should they be convicted of terrorist crimes. The initial proposal was to remove French nationality from bi-national citizens convicted of terrorist attacks. Faced with firm opposition, especially from Socialist deputies, an amended proposal was introduced whereby any convicted terrorist could be deprived of their French nationality, potentially creating apatricides. As Patrick Weil pointed out, there were problems with each of these positions: to deprive only bi-nationals of their French nationality was tantamount to discrimination and to creating two classes of citizenship (against the equality inherent in the Declarations of the Rights of Man)[9]. But the proposal to remove French nationality from any convicted terrorist might leave certain citizens without a nationality. If the first proposal clearly went against the canons of French republican equality, the second one was manifestly contrary to international jurisprudence and law. After four months of high drama, the constitutional reform bill eventually fell in March 2016, once the Senate refused to accept the terms of the constitutional reform finally approved

in the National Assembly[10]. The saga further alienated the left (including losing the Justice minister Christian Taubira, the symbol of left-wing authenticity within the Valls government) without rallying the right in support of the constitutional change. Eventually both measures fell victim to the decision to abandon the constitutional reform. The real fault was a political one. This idea of removing nationality from terrorists has long been associated with the UMP (Sarkozy in 2010) and even the National Front (Front national – FN), whose spokesperson declared the FNs agreement with the proposal.   The political damage caused by this saga has been considerable for the lack of any positive outcome. The response was to divide further an already emasculated left, without opening up a viable electoral alternative.

One of the core constituencies supporting Hollande in 2012 was that of the youngest age cohorts (18-24, 25-34). Shortly on the heels of the constitutional saga, the proposed El Khomri law revealed how difficult it can be for any government, including a Socialist-led one, to maintain a constructive relationship with young people on the verge of entering the labour market. The merits of the proposed El Khomri law (which initially set out to reform [modestly] the labour code, to liberalise [somewhat] the conditions under which firms could lay-off workers and to limit job-loss payments) might be debated. The employer’s association, the MEDEF, has long argued that the French labour code is impossibly complex and has posited a clear link between excessive regulation and the stubborn refusal of the unemployment curve to begin its movement downwards. In drafting the initial project, premier Valls listened closely to be MEDEF (and rather less closely to PS deputies or traditional support organisations such as the student union, the UNEF).  In rather typical style, weak consultation produced a social movement which, in turn, led the government to abandon key elements of the proposed legislation. Rather like the Macron Law in 2015, the proposals that eventually emerged fell far short of their initial ambition.  Perhaps the Socialists have nothing to expect from the MEDEF. But the rupture with ‘young people’ was the real downside of this series. The most contentious issues were abandoned before the law had been introduced in the Council of Ministers. And yet this climb-down was not enough to put the genie of France’s youth back into the bottle, as the mobilisation against the Loi el Khomri was transformed into the nuits debout movement, staring in the Place de la République in Paris and extending outwards to the French cities shortly after, the symbol of a divided left and a youth in revolt, renewing with a classic register (social protest) aimed against the incumbent socialist government. The mobilisation of students and school pupils against the proposed El Khomri Law recalled that one decade earlier against the First Employment Contract (Contrat premier emploi – CPE) of de Villepin government. The merits of the case need not be reviewed extensively here. That the dual labour market might be responsible for the high level of youth employment does not figure as part of the mental map of the protesters against labour market insecurity. But the management of the Valls- Hollande tandem was clearly defective. Neither the minister, Myriam El Khomri, nor premier Valls was able to reassure and satisfy a youth fearful of labour flexibility and desirous of the full time permanent contracts that their parents enjoyed.

Faced with these setbacks, the latest batch of opinion surveys provide little solace for Hollande. The third round of the CEVIPOF’s 2017 Barometer casts doubt on Hollande’s personal judgement. Even more recent surveys have suggested that Hollande, as PS candidate, would not reach the second round and, if he did, would be defeated by Marine Le Pen[11]. These findings are incredibly damaging, as they undermine Hollande’s attempt to position himself as Father of the Nation, defending the Republic against its enemies. In this fin de règne there is new evidence of lèse majesté: in the form of the ambitious political positioning of Emmanuel Macron, the new darling of the polls on the left. Though Macron owes his political ascension to President Hollande (Assistant General Secretary of the Elysée, named as Finance minister in April 2014),  in early April 2016 the ambitious énarque announced the creation of a new political movement, En Marche, explicitly aiming to  transcend left and right. Whatever the fortunes of this movement (there have been others), it is difficult to see how it cannot be experienced as a form of treason by Hollande, protector and promotor of the ambitious Macron as a counterweight to premier Valls and a bridge to the business world.  Valls, trapped by solidarity with Hollande and by co-management of the executive for over two years, is no longer the young reformer anxious to sweep aside the existing Socialist order. Macron is much less constrained and more likely to ‘kill the father’.

These events tells us something about Hollande’s presidential style. The official optimism of public speeches throughout the Hollande presidency was in stark contrast with popular perceptions of failure. The 2012-2017 presidential term has been defined in part by a style that posits a preference for formal consultation over open confrontation. There is much to be said for the art of refined compromise, especially after the fractures of the Sarkozy years.  Hollande’s celebrated capacity for synthesis was developed over years as First Secretary of the Socialist Party, and involved an intimate knowledge of PS networks, and of the changing centre of gravity within the party.  If the advantage is flexibility, and the ability to adapt to a changing centre of gravity, the downside is the challenge of consistency, credibility and coherence. Ultimately, Hollande’s reputation has suffered from the ambiguities of the 2012 campaign, from the lasting impression of a lack of coordination within the executive and in relations with the Socialist-led majority and, above all, by perceptions of a poor policy record, marked notably by the failure to control unemployment.


[1]  ‘François Hollande dans une position toujours plus difficile avant la Présidentielle’   IPSOS- CEVIPOF-Le Monde, 30 March 2016, In the third wave of the CEVIPOF’s Barometer, by far the largest rolling survey with over 20,000 respondents, Francois Hollande was in third position whether the Republican candidate was Alain Juppé (14%), or Nicolas Sarkozy (16%). Hence, the incumbent President would be eliminated on the first round.

[2] Jaffré, J. (2012) ‘Ce que signifie le vote du 6 mai’, Le Monde, 5 June.

[3] Op. cit.

[4] Cole, A. (2014) ‘Not Saying, Not Doing:  Convergences, Contingencies and Causal Mechanisms of State Reform and Decentralisation in Hollande’s France’ French Politics 12 (2): 104-135.

[5]  In an IFOP-Fiducial poll for Paris Match and Sud Radio, 27-28 November 2015, Hollande obtained 50% of positive opinions. Cited in Le Monde, 2-4 January 2016.  By 26 April 2016, Hollande was credited with only 17% of favourable opinions (83% unfavourable) in an ODOXA survey for L’Express.

[6] The state of urgency, ruled by a law dating from 1955 at the height of the Algerian crisis, is not to be confused with the state of emergency (Article 16), which allows the President to suspend the normal operation of the Constitution.

[7]  Beaud, O (2016) ‘Ce projet de réforme constitutionnelle est inutile et inepte’, Le Monde, 2 February.

[8] In response to a Question prioritaire de constitutionalité, (QPC) the Constitutional Council demanded a much stricter control of the conditions under which computer hard disks could be copied, which emptied the measure of much of  its operational effectiveness.

[9] Weil, P. (2016) ‘Le principe d’égalité est un pilier de notre identité’, Le Monde, 8 January.

[10] Bekmezian, H. (2016) ‘Le Sénat enterre la décheance de nationalité’, Le Monde 19th March ; Le Monde (2016) ‘les principales réactions à l’abandon de la réforme constitutionnelle’ Available at : (consulted 27 April 2016).

[11] For example, according to the IFOP – Fiducial poll (17/04/2016) for i-tele, Paris-Match and Sud Radio, Le Pen would win a (very hypothetical) Le Pen-Hollande run off in 2017 by 53% to 47%

Jean-Louis Thiébault – President Hollande’s cabinet reshuffle

This is a guest post by Jean-Louis Thiébault, emeritus professor of political science and former director of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Lille

In France, the government reshuffle is a weapon in the hands of the president. It can have three objectives: a change of personnel, the enlargement of the majority, or a change in policy (Editorial by Alain Duhamel on RTL, February 11, 2016). The formation of Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ third government on 11 February 2016 aims to meet all three goals. However, it fails to bring together all of the left and fails to guarantee that François Hollande will be the sole candidate of the left at the 2017 presidential election.

The change of personnel notably concerned Ministers Laurent Fabius and Sylvia Pinel. The former left the Foreign Affairs ministry to become president of the Constitutional Council with his ministerial portfolio being given to former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (May 2012-April 2014). The latter left the Ministry of Housing and Sustainable Habitat to becomes executive vice-president of the Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées region. Other ministers were also replaced, yet the widely touted departures of Marylise Lebranchu from the Ministry of Decentralization and Public Service and Fleur Pellerin from the Ministry of Culture and Communication did not take place. However, the prior resignation of the Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, should be noted. She resigned because of her opposition to a plan to strip French-born terrorists of their nationality. The resignation took place on 27 January 2016, with Taubira being immediately replaced by Jean-Jacques Urvoas. The appointments mark the desire to create a strong ministerial group in the fight against terrorism.

The second objective was the expansion of the majority by rebalancing the distribution of men and women in the government, but also by the entry of three representatives from the environmentalists and the centre-left. The new government has 38 members: 18 ministers and 20 state secretaries. There is a strict gender parity with the same number of women and men among both ministers and secretaries of state. The entry of the environmentalists came with the appointment of the national secretary (leader) of Europe-Ecologie-Les-Verts (EELV), Emmanuelle Cosse, as housing minister, and two dissident environmentalists, Vincent Place, a senator, and Barbara Pompili, a deputy and former co-chair of the EELV parliamentary group. The latter two ministers had already broken with EELV for some time. However, the appointment of Emmanuelle Cosse smacks of poaching from EELV. The new government is not the result of a coalition agreement. There is a return of the greens, but there was no substantive discussion on policy, no programmatic agreement, no concessions made, no compromises accepted, apart from a “consultation” on the construction of the proposed airport at Notre Dame des Landes, near Nantes, in Loire-Atlantique. In a statement on 10 February 2016 EELV stated that the conditions were not ready for a return of environmentalists to the government. Entitled “About the reshuffle”, the text stated that “EELV has not been contacted, but that if an offer” were to be made to the whole movement “by the executive, the direction of EELV would study it “with responsibility”. EELV added: “environmentalists note that if the conditions were no longer in place to advance ecology in April 2014 with the departure of Cécile Duflot and Pascal Canfin from the government, the same remains true today “. The statement mentions no names, but everyone understood that it was aimed at Emmanuelle Cosse. She immediately stepped down as national secretary. David Cormand, the party number two, was chosen as her replacement prior to the EELV congress in June 2016. In short, EELV was against the appointment of Emmanuelle Cosse to the government.

The third objective is the desire to find a new balance with a view to the 2017 presidential election. The new government has been appointed with the presidential campaign in mind. The choices made by the president were not targeted at public policy issues, but to rebalance balances an exhausted government majority. President Francois Hollande has named people who can put out potential political fires in the majority (David Revault Allonnes, “Derniers colmatages présidentiels avant 2017”, Le Monde, February 13, 2016). The most important appointment is that of the environmentalists in order to torpedo any attempt an ecologist candidacy in the 2017 presidential election, which would be very detrimental to him. However, EELV is now free to radicalize even more, making life difficult for the government and raising the prospect of an alliance with the left-wing opposition to to the president. The other appointment is that of the president of the left-center Radical Party (PRG), Jean-Michel Baylet. Again, the tactical aspect is not absent. The appointment of the chairman of PRG allies the party securely with the ruling majority, while removinging the spectre of a left-center radical candidate in the 2017 presidential election.

In the final period of his five-year term, Francois Hollande has once again decided to promote the idea of a “responsible left” and to distance himself from the “protest left.” He understands that he cannot expect anything from either the left wing of the Socialist Party (PS) or from the left of the left.  His opponents inside the PS, the “rebels”, aim to weaken him, to build an alternative project, and to hold a primary election that is open to the left as a whole.

Jean-Louis Thiébault, emeritus professor of political science and former director of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Lille, France (1997-2007). He works on comparative political analysis of emerging countries, presidential leadership, and presidential parties.

Alistair Cole – The French President: Changing Times Afoot, Challenging Times Ahead

This is a guest post by Alistair Cole, Sciences Po, Lyon, France (


The French presidency is sometimes presented as a timeless institution, a successful office that has restored stability (after the precarious disequilibrium of the Fourth Republic) and provided the model of an original hybrid, the semi-presidential regime, that has been subsequently been imitated in several other countries. Stability has been celebrated by incumbent French Presidents, from de Gaulle (who lauded the presidency as the alternative to a return of chaos) through to Hollande (who evoked the stability of the institutions in his attempt to survive a period of unprecedented unpopularity from 2012 to 2014). President Mitterrand’s injunction to let time do the work (‘donner du temps au temps’) exemplified the timeless quality of the presidency admirably. Beneath this apparent stability, however, the French presidency has evolved considerably over time, to the point that in 2012, at the end of Sarkozy’s (first) presidential term, I asked the question: was the presidency the same institution under Sarkozy as that of his Fifth Republic predecessors (Cole, 2012)?

In one obvious sense, the French presidency has been forced to accompany time. France in the 1960s was not the same as France in the mid-2010s. De Gaulle’s leadership was crafted in the context of regime change, decolonization, social and economic take-off, the formative stages of European integration and the stabilization of the cold war that allowed the General to develop original nuclear and foreign policy doctrines. By the time of Hollande’s arrival in office in 2012, the political institutions, though contested by much of political and public opinion, had proved their flexibility. Decolonisation still provoked occasional controversies but only as part of France’s historical heritage. The European Union had expanded from 6 to 27 members and the cold war was a distant memory. The specific circumstances of the 1960s that encouraged de Gaulle to craft a distinctive leadership role no longer prevailed in the 2010s.

The key paradox to be addressed in this piece is whether the French presidency is still fit for purpose, given that the core institutional traits of the office were shaped in a period far removed from the challenges facing France in 2016. Using various configurations of time, I consider the goodness of fit between the French presidential office and contemporary memorial, institutional and policy timescapes. Evidence is provided from all stages of the Fifth Republic, but special attention is afforded to the last two presidential incumbents, Sarkozy and Hollande.

Time as commemoration

President Hollande has had more than his fair share of commemorations, from the 100 years of the outbreak of World War One in 2014 to the 20th anniversary of Francois Mitterrand’s death, on 11th January 2016 and countless other occasions. Though by definition it commemorates time, in a political sense commemoration is timeless; hence the great attention paid to the formal consecration of events by President Hollande and his predecessors. Commemoration allows French presidents to cloak themselves in the noble aspects of the office.

Commemoration recalls national (or party) unity in times of terrorist attacks or foreign policy interventions and provides set-piece occasions for the French President to address the nation (July 14th, 31st December).  In extremely grave times, such as the response to the terrorist attacks on January and November 2015, commemoration (with a broad definition) assumes the form of a brief spell of national unity against a clearly identified aggressor. Such moments allow the President to embody national unity and, in the case of the current incumbent, provide occasional respite from routine unpopularity. Though presidents attempt to prolong the sentiment of national unity (see Hollande’s attempt to constitutionalise the State of Emergency provisions) such occasions are almost by definition limited in time. Hollande’s opinion poll ratings took a familiar path after the dual terrorist attacks of January and November 2015:  an immediate rallying of support behind the President, followed by a steep decline in the polls two months later, the time it takes to unpick the thin veil of national consensus. Hollande’s steep fall in public confidence in early 2016 recalls that time is contingent and that commemoration is not the basis for long-term survival.

Time and contingent choices

That the Fifth Republic has survived for longer than any other political regime except the Third Republic can produce a false sense of coherence. The power of the present to interpret the past has been recalled during the course of my lectures to the first year students at Sciences Po Lyon. Revisiting the 1958-1962 period via contemporary videos and press reports recalls how much the presidential office has been shaped in terms of contingent choices that might not have occurred (the nature of de Gaulle’s arrival in power in 1958 amid allegations of Putsch-like behaviour; the General’s footloose interpretations of the constitution from 1959 to 1962; the president-centric interpretation of the 31st January 1964 press conference). The uncertainty of the early years of the Fifth Republic recedes from memory and is eclipsed in standard textbook accounts or historical narrations. If the French president appears with the benefit of hindsight as la clé de voûte des institutions, such a construction was vigorously contested by many at the time and only partially legitimised with Mitterrand’s election as first Socialist President in 1981.  The office of the presidency does not exist in a situation of stasis. The ascendancy of the presidency stems in part from the contingent choices made by individuals. Had General de Gaulle decided to invest the office of the Prime Minister, for example, we might conjecture that the development of presidential power would not have occurred in the form it did. We should note that General de Gaulle’s famous 1964 press conference occurred before the first direct election of the President of 1965; it represented a theorisation of presidential power that bore little relationship to the text of the 1958 constitution, but which would also be superseded by the consequences of bipolar competition after 1965. But the powerful institutionalisation around the presidency was a political game changer.

Time and Institutional rhythms

Core changes have occurred in the electoral and the institutional rules since 1958. The most significant change in the electoral rules concerned the direct election of the President in the October 1962 referendum. Direct election has had unintended consequences; rather than the consecration of a transcendental form of leadership, the direct election of the President produced an initially bipolar partisan competition for the conquest of the key institutional office. Changes in the institutional rules have influenced the evolution of the office. Arguably the most significant institutional change of all was that replacing the seven-year term (septennat) with a five-year term (quinquennat) in 2000. By aligning the two electoral cycles and ensuring that the presidential election precedes the parliamentary contest, these constitutional changes have consolidated the institutional ascendancy of the presidency. Because both the presidential and parliamentary elections were held in 2002, the second Chirac presidency had the luxury of enjoying a clear, five-year horizon without having to face national elections. Sarkozy repeated the feat in 2007, as did Hollande in 2012.

But the President’s more affirmed institutional ascendancy is not the most significant observation. After a period marked by stasis during the second Chirac presidency (2002-2007), the first Sarkozy (2007-2012) term bore the mark of the quinquennat, an acceleration of political time that makes cohabitation less likely, but propels the French president into a much more active role from the beginning of the mandate. Under Sarkozy (especially) and Hollande, the French President has appeared more explicitly as de facto head of government than their predecessors, and as such  has been forced to take responsibility for governing. Both Presidents were unable to use the shield of the prime minister to absorb unpopularity. While Sarkozy was less popular than his PM Fillon throughout the 2007-2012 period, Hollande was also eclipsed in terms of popularity by PM Valls from April 2014 onwards.

In 2007-2012, the personal governing style of ‘speedy Sarko’ combined with a changed set of rules of the presidential game (the quickening rhythm of the quinquennat) to create the fast presidency, an evolution of the traditional presidential office. Sarkozy’s presidency was based on a transgression of the key personal and institutional codes, most notably on a deeply political reading of the office, whereby the political leader dispensed with the discourse of national unity, slated opponents and invited unpopularity in response to detailed interventionism in politics and policy-making. Though Hollande’s personal presidential style was light years away from that of Sarkozy – ponderous, hesitant and deliberative – he faced similar constraints (the demand for rapid action to resolve crisis; occupying the frontline in the economic crisis [unemployment, economic growth, competitiveness]). Hollande has been hoist on his own petard because of the imprudent commitment, made barely one year into his quinquennat, to be judged on his capacity to reverse the upward trend in the unemployment figures. In spite of a battery of plans for the social treatment of unemployment, thus far the unemployment rate has edged ever higher (the December 2015 figures reversing an apparent improvement in November).

In both cases, the blame game (Sarkozy’s rupture with the Chirac years, Hollande’s persistent anti-Sarkozy stance) aggravated the situation. In both cases, the suprapartisan image of the French presidency gave way to a more sharply defined partisan appeal. Sarkozy’s claim to embody supra-partisan neutrality during the economic crisis from 2008-2010 was difficult to sustain given the hyper-presidentialist activism of the first three years. Likewise, Hollande failed to rise above the Socialist party politics that had propelled him to office after his success in the 2011 PS primary election.

These changing domestic institutional equilibria have challenged the traditional arbiter role of the French president. The presidential office itself has evolved to such an extent that the public’s perception of presidential action is rarely dissociated from the cleavages of domestic politics. This distance between the President and public opinion has been aggravated by the reality of tripartite party politics (since 2002 and especially since the consolidation of the National Front under Marine Le Pen since 2011), which is squeezed with great difficulty into the rules of bipolar institutional competition.

Changing Times afoot, Challenging Times ahead

The meaning of the presidential office has shifted with the passage of time. The French presidency has been affected by broader shifts in the domestic and external environment: the weakening capacities of French Presidents on the European level; the country’s modest economic performance, falling ever more behind Germany; the changing nature of the security challenges facing France and other European nations. The founding myth of the Fifth Republic, based on the heroic narrative of presidential leadership rescuing France from the abyss of the Third and Fourth Republics and a strong state, has faded with time and appears ever more out of kilter with the contemporary situation of France. French Presidents are no longer heroic figures and the capacities of national public policy action have been reduced as France has become increasingly integrated in the European Union.

The French presidential office was shaped and defined in a context of crisis, and has evolved through the contradictory impulse of contingent forces: of individual incumbents, of changing political circumstances and of evolutions in the external settings. The general quickening of political life has made it far more difficult for incumbents to combine the key roles that are traditionally ascribed to the French President. The fall from grace of individual French presidents has affected the capacity of the presidential office itself to stand above the fray of domestic partisan politics. Is the French presidency still fit for purpose? With changing times afoot, there are challenging times ahead.


Cole, A. (2012) ‘The Fast Presidency?  Nicolas Sarkozy and the political institutions of the Fifth Republic’ Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 16:3, 311-321.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2016

In the first blog post of 2015, I explored the origins of and various customs and conventions surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state. This year, I will look more closely at the content of these speeches (although focussing – for the sake of brevity – only on presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state this time).

Finnish Niinistö records his New Year's speech for 2016 | photo (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

Finnish president Sauli Niinistö records his New Year’s speech for 2016 | (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

As I noted in my post last year, Christmas and New Year’s addresses rarely rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies and often include a short summary of the last year’s events in the country. Common themes (apart from holiday wishes) are relatively rare. This year, however, many presidents directly addressed the refugee crisis in Europe. The presidents of Austria and Germany who have had to deal with extraordinary refugee streams both called for compassion and tried to strengthen the ‘can do’-spirit that has so far characterised the reactions of Federal Chancellors’ Merkel and Faynmann and volunteers in both countries. Presidents of other countries hit by the surge of refugees did not address the issue so clearly. Hungarian president Ader referred to it among other unexpected events of 2015, while the Slovenian and Croatian presidents Pahor and Grabar-Kitarović in their – significantly shorter seasons’ greetings – did not raise the issue at all apart from vague references to difficulties.

The refugee crisis featured more prominently on the other hand in the speeches of Slovak president Kiska and Czech president Zeman – yet taking almost diametrically opposed positions. Kiska largely downplayed the issue stating Slovakia was much less affected than other countries and the issue should not dominate the national agenda. Zeman on the other hand, called the influx of refugees as “an organized invasion” and called for young male refugees to return to their country to fight ISIS. Given Zeman’s previous statements this is hardly surprising, yet it is generally unusual for a Christmas message to include such controversial material. The refugee crisis also took centre stage in speeches by Finnish president Niinistö as he justified the steps taken by the government to limit the number of people receiving help.

Another theme in presidential speeches were national tragedies and the security. The Paris attacks featured strongly in French president Hollande’s speech, so did the Germanwing air crash in German president Gauck’s Christmas message. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis and potential conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria were included in a number of speeches. Yet presidents also focussed on the economic situation and way of the recession – most prominently included in the messages of the presidents of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. The latter’s speech was however mostly reported on due to the fact that president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced that he would not run for a sixth term as president.

Overall, this once again highlights that presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses can be important indicators of the political situation or the importance of particular events throughout the year. Until now, there has nevertheless been only very limited academic research on presidential statements on these occasions. So far, I could only find an analysis of the role of religion in new year’s addresses by Swiss Federal Presidents – showing an overall decline in biblical references throughout the years. [1] In most European republics appear to follow this trend – explicit biblical references beyond a mere reference to the holiday can only be found in the speeches of the presidents of Malta and Hungary.

Christmas - NY presidents 2016 + Wulff 2011

From top left to bottom right: Presidents Higgins (Ireland), Duda (Poland), Wulff (Germany; 2011), Coleiro Preca (Malta), Iohannis (Romania).

Last but not least (and partly inspired by the DailyMail’s analysis of the photographs on Queen Elizabeth II’s desk), I think it is worth looking at the setting of presidents’ speeches. Where speeches are broadcast on TV (or recorded and then put on youtube), the setting is surprisingly similar with the president usually sitting or standing in front of flags or a fireplace. In Germany, this set-up had so much become the norm that Christian Wulff’s walking speech among a group of surprisingly diverse citizens (see centre image of above collage) caused great excitement among editors trying to fill the seasonal news slump. More unusual however was Swiss Federal President Adolf Ogi’s address of 2000 – he stood in front of a railway tunnel (watch the video here).

[1] Kley, Andreas (2008). ‘”Und der Herrgott, Herr Bundespräsident?” Zivilreligion in den Neujahrsansprachen der schweizerischen Bundespräsidenten’. In: Kraus, Dieter et al. Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Kirchenrecht. Bern, Switzerland, 11-56.

A list with links to the 2015/2016 speeches can be downloaded here.

John Gaffney – Understanding the French Presidency

This post is drawn from the Introduction to John Gaffney (2015) France in the Hollande Presidency: The Unhappy Republic (London: Palgrave).

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France is back in the news again and, as in January 2015, for deadly terrorist attacks, this time staggeringly more deadly; November 13: 130 dead, 350 wounded 80 of whom seriously. The French presidency was not the cause of these attacks, but it is central to the overall political process, and in particular its inadequacies. The presidency and the regime lie at the heart of France’s ills. Since François Hollande’s election in 2012, economic growth has been non-existent, unemployment has risen unrelentingly, along with the popularity of the far right Front National and its leader Marine Le Pen. My recent book* identifies, chronicles and analyses this ‘dysfunctional’ presidential republic. I analyse what the first half of the five-year term tells us about the nature of the Fifth Republic, and the way in which François Hollande failed to understand the ‘performative requirements’ of the Republic, in particular the notions of time, character, and what I call ‘sequencing the self’. From a theoretical point of view I am concerned with the appraisal of the political performance of an individual and his entourage within a particular configuration of institutions and expectations. By 2015, in many polls up to 86% of respondents had a very negative view of Hollande. In my book, it is unavoidable being critical of Hollande himself and his team. My analysis is not, however, concerned with his real character except in as much as it informs us about his ‘performative character’, and his persona; it is the relationship of this to the configuration of institutions and to public opinion that is the central focus of my study. My focus is the presidency and its historical, cultural, and institutional conditions of performance. Paradoxically, I am equally concerned with presidential politics at the daily political level, because this is where the presidency as a perceived and symbolic institution and one that is ‘active’ in political life actually ‘performs’. The ‘trivial’, the incidental, the apparently unimportant, and the ‘trivial unexpected’ in French politics are now in a systematic (and yet chaotic) relationship to ‘real politics’, to the point where the trivial has become unpredictable in its effects and has major political consequences. The Hollande presidency is an acute illustration of the dysfunction of the presidency in the Fifth Republic. Functionally, actions, reactions, and responses all take place within a symbolic or ideational framework, in large part related to how the Fifth Republic is perceived, and has been historically perceived, ‘imagined’ and ‘constructed’ since 1958. I concentrate on how the republic functions and acts symbolically, how it ‘enacts itself’. I identify the range of historical and cultural reasons why the Fifth Republic is one in which ‘symbolic politics’ and its related myths, leadership image, discourse, rhetoric, and the President as the ‘embodiment’ of politics, have taken on inordinate political significance. The strongest myth is that of the recours, or return of the ‘saviour’, a feature of French politics for two centuries but given an institutional platform by the Fifth Republic, and used by all leadership contenders, even if they have already ‘returned’, i.e. are in office.

From the practical point of view, I ask a series of ‘normal’ political questions about Hollande’s presidency and his government/s: Why were they so unpopular? How do we account for the rise of all the negative indices of the regime barely four months into office? How do we account for the extremes, the surges of opinion, such as the widespread Manif pour tous or Bonnets rouges protests in 2013? More widely, how do we account for the general, we might venture almost clinical, depression of the whole population (and this before the attacks of January and November 2015 which terrified the nation), the political demobilisation of the electorate, and a growing disdain for politics throughout the years of Hollande’s presidency? Was all of this inevitable? What should Hollande have been doing? What should he have not been doing? And an even wider question: how do we understand this profusion of surface phenomena in terms of deeper structures and processes? Gestures and actions at a daily level ‘betray’, ‘reveal’ the fundamentals of the Fifth Republic. We can characterise, for example, the storm of trivial activity through the spring, summer and autumn of 2013 of gestures, initiatives, actions, interventions, short holidays, media saturation of presidential and prime ministerial ‘déplacements’ during July and August 2013 as surface expressions of a kind of neurotic attempt to ‘cope with’ the barely understood exigencies of the republic. These gestures were not unconscious but, beyond the grasp of their authors, they demonstrate, perform even, the dilemmas of the Fifth Republic, in particular the highly problematic nature of the presidency. The most dramatic – debilitating for subsequent negotiations in November 2015, and humiliating for Hollande in 2013 – was his making the Syrian chemical weapons crisis of August-September 2013 a personalised clash between himself and President Assad, then his complete marginalisation when Presidents Obama and Putin defused the situation in September 2013.

De Gaulle created a very singular republic based inordinately upon 1) the role of the persona of the President, the role of discourse and of personal image and gesture, and the ‘character’ of the President; and 2) the constructed, ‘imagined’ relationship between the President and people on the one hand, and the President and ‘France’ on the other. These two facets of the new republic in 1958 had a dramatic and complex effect upon the nature of political competition, the influence of the political culture (later the role of the celebrity culture), the role of the symbolic, and the role and configuration of the institutions, in particular, the presidency. In the Hollande presidency there has been a series of such fundamental and on-going miscalculations that they raise the question of whether the political actors understand the republic. Simple things like an appropriate way to ‘be’ the President – how to talk, not constantly to joke, control the public comportment of his (now former) partner, and so on – betrayed a lack of sensitivity to both the exigencies of the office and the nature of the republic. After every interview, announcement, and press conference in his first two years, Hollande’s popularity fell significantly. In 2012, 2013, 2014, and now 2015 virtually no gesture, speech or action had traction on opinion. At times, indifference seemed even to replace hostility, as if the President had become an irrelevance, as if he barely existed. And tiny increases in popularity after crises like January and November 2015 were less the result of Hollande’s actions but because the office embodies national unity.

Not that Sarkozy had understood things much better. Sarkozy’s style might or might not have been appropriate, but Hollande’s own was in large part based upon his being simply the negation of Sarkozy, operationally, stylistically, politically, and – which would come to be highly problematic – ethically. Hollande had faced only half the issue (i.e. what unwanted features Nicolas Sarkozy had brought to the republic); what was not developed was an understanding of what he was going to replace them with and why, and how.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s fate as respected new President in 2007 was seen as being sealed the night of his victory by an ostentatious celebration meal in the Champs-Elysées restaurant Fouquet’s. Very badly received by the media and the public, this perceived, somewhat common, ‘bling’ expression of conspicuous consumption and celebration inserted fragility into his presidential status, and then a relentless decline in the new President’s popularity. This was the first time in the Fifth Republic such an ‘event’ had had such a crystallising effect. Hollande’s going off on holiday (almost immediately after election, and while unemployment burned) in July-August 2012 was his equivalent to Sarkozy’s defining miscalculation. Each of these events tells us a great deal about the ‘nature’ of this republic today: a single trivial act, given oxygen, as it were, by the media and opinion, can throw a presidency out of kilter. In some respects, this is a new and normative feature of governance or mal-governance in France. In another respect, it is not new at all, or is rather the singular new expression of a fundamental feature as old as the Fifth Republic, namely, the dramatically consequent phenomenon of personal popularity, or more accurately in these cases, unpopularity, themselves the product of a complex ‘imagined’ relationship between President and public. Charles de Gaulle brought to the Fifth Republic a very volatile emotional political relationship. Today, de Gaulle approaches sainthood in the public memory, but that was not the lived reality. Although the volatility of the relationship was displayed by him as appeasing of conflict, he was viscerally liked and disliked (one might venture to say loved and hated, admired and feared) in almost equal and varying measure; and this relationship saw his ultimate undoing in 1969 (and, ironically, established the conditions for the perenniality of both the republic itself and his mythical status). Beyond popularity, moreover, was the question of political and emotional need, what was ‘required’ of the presidency and how this fitted into the rapidly established parameters of the new republic between 1958 and 1962. De Gaulle responded to this need by developing all the dramatic aspects of his character, lending to the new French republic the ‘character’ of its new President: grand, visionary, imperial – in manner if not always in policies – interventionist, dramatic, in a phrase, larger than life. And presidential character was in a relationship to public approval – hence the triumphs of 1958 and 1962 but also defeat such as 1969. The same was less true of Pompidou, who acted as a kind of dramatic relief from such imperium (besides, any attempt to ‘follow de Gaulle’, as it were, would have looked farcical); but Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac’s presidencies each displayed enormous swings in ratings of popularity-unpopularity in the polls. All of this suggests an emotional volatility between the public and the Presidents. With the celebrity culture from the 2000s onwards, a new feature does not simply emerge in France but merges with this deeper structural phenomenon of the Fifth Republic, changing the problematic ‘intimacy’ in leader-public relations: neither Sarkozy nor Hollande seemed to understand this aspect of the regime, the emotional intensity and complexity of an, albeit ‘imagined’, relationship, and the fact that with the new celebrity politics the President would be in the public eye on a daily basis.

John Gaffney is a political commentator and author, and currently Professor of Politics at Aston University. Specialising in UK and French politics and the discourse of leadership, he regularly contributes to TV and print media. In July 2012, he was awarded £77,000 by the Leverhulme Trust for a two year study of UK political leadership. His latest book, France in the Hollande Presidency: The Unhappy Republic (Palgrave, 2015), is out now. His 2012 book, Political Leadership in France: From Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy (Palgrave), is out in paperback.

France – A state of emergency

On Friday 13 November, Paris was attacked by terrorists, who killed 129 people in horrific circumstances. How has President Hollande responded? What are the likely domestic political consequences?

In immediate response to the attacks President Hollande invoked a state of emergency (l’état d’urgence).1 This measure was introduced in 1955 at the time of the war in Algeria. The current application is the sixth. The previous time it was invoked was in 2005 during the riots in parts of Paris. Prior to then it was applied three times in relation to Algeria and once in 1984 with regard to the violence in New Caledonia. It’s a measure that doesn’t so much give the president more power personally. Instead, it gives more powers to the main ministerial and administrative actors in the domestic security context. So, the Minister of Interior gains certain powers as do prefects, who are the representative of the central state in the localities. It has a legal not a constitutional basis, though its constitutionality has been tested and approved by the Constitutional Council.

On Monday 16 November President Hollande followed up this measure with a speech to a Congress of parliament at Versailles. Bringing together the two houses of the legislature, presidential addresses of this sort have only been possible since the 2008 constitutional reform. Prior to that time, in strict adherence with a notion of the separation of powers, the president could only have a message read out to parliament and could not set foot in the institution. This was only the second in-person presidential address since the 2008 reform.

In his speech to Congress, President Hollande talked about extending the state of emergency for three months. He also introduced the idea of rewording Articles 16 and 36 of the 1958 Constitution to give this measure some sort of constitutional footing. At present, Article 16 deals with the president’s emergency powers, which are a step above a state of emergency, while Article 36 refers to the ‘state of siege’, which, again, is different from a state of emergency. As yet, not least because of subsequent events, no measures have been formally introduced.

President Hollande is now in the fourth year of his presidency. While leaders who are faced with severe security threats often benefit from a wave of public sympathy, President Hollande has not been in this position. He continues to record among the lowest satisfaction ratings of any president of the Fifth Republic. Following the terrible Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 there was a wave of national unity that included most of the political class, yet the opinion polls did not rebound in President Hollande’s favour.

It is too early to tell, not least given the events that followed on Wednesday morning in Saint-Denis, whether public opinion will rally around President Hollande in the current circumstances. There is, though, reason to suggest that it will not. The 13 November attacks again met with a wave of national solidarity, but this time party political opinion has quickly divided. President Hollande’s speech at the Congress of parliament was received with dignity. However, little such dignity was in evidence during the questions to the government in the National Assembly on Tuesday 17 November, though this was in the presence of the prime minister rather than the president.

In short, domestic security policy already seems to have become more politicised than it was before the attacks. Needless to say, this issue is related to, or has the potential to be related to, other salient and highly divisive issues, such as the EU’s policy on migrants, the Schengen agreement, welfare policy, and freedom of communication. In this context, the rise of the National Front is salient.2 Their new leader, Marine Le Pen, is trying to ‘de-demonise’ the party, in effect making it electable. The mix of a volatile set of policy issues for which she has some seemingly easy answers and yet a party that is increasingly aiming to present itself as a party of government may well mean that it gains yet more appeal.

There is also the traditional right. The most likely winner of the 2017 presidential election is going to be the candidate of the former UMP, the Republicans (les Republicans). The party’s leader is none other than Nicolas Sarkozy, who has ambitions to return to the presidency. Prior to his election in 2007, he made his name on law and order issues. Therefore, events would seem to be playing into his hands. However, Sarkozy is a very contested figure within the party. Figures such as former PM, Alain Juppé, still have presidential ambitions and the road to the candidacy will be a rocky one.

In the meantime, France is traumatised. There is a certain unity, but there is a tremendous amount of fear. The governing regime, and, indeed, the political class generally, has formal legitimacy, but lacks popular support. An overseas war risks spreading to the streets of the capital and France generally. A state of emergency has been invoked in response. It all sounds eerily familiar, but things have moved on in the last 60 years. A simple change of regime will not alter the underlying issues and there is no saviour figure waiting in the wings. As things stand, then, France is likely to lurch on from crisis to crisis and from president to president.


  1. There is a nice review of the history of this measure by Sylvie Thénault in Le Movement social, no. 1, (2007), pp. 63-78. It is Open Access.
  2. There is a special issue of French Politics on the recent spike in support for the National Front available here, including free-to-access articles.

Emiliano Grossman – The French “guillotine” procedure: rationalized parliamentarism gone mad

This is a guest post by Emiliano Grossman, Associate Research Professor, Centre d’études européennes de Sciences Po, Paris


The announcement that the government would again resort to Article 49.3 of the Constitution for the adoption of the second reading of the “Macron Act” on June 18 caused a new outcry among politicians and the press. The first reading had already been subject to this procedure[1]. The main reason behind this is the existence of increasingly strong divisions within the center-left government majority in the Assemblée nationale, France’s lower chamber. The Macron Bill contains a series of measures meant to boost the French economy, but many of its critics within the government camp consider it to be a classic pro-market measure with few benefits for employment or public finance.

The use of this article is not new and neither are the hostile reactions that its use has led to. Opposition parties pretend to be outraged, while members of the majority remain, at best, awkwardly silent. Created by the 1958 Constitution, the ’49 .3′ or ‘guillotine’ is a permanent issue of conflict under the 5th Republic. The reason is simple: the procedure puts an end to parliamentary debate and the normal legislative procedure. In its original wording, the article is very explicit:

The Prime Minister may, after deliberation by the Council of Ministers, make the passing of a Finance Bill or Social Security Financing Bill an issue of a vote of confidence before the National Assembly. In that event, the Bill shall be considered passed unless a resolution of no-confidence, tabled within the subsequent twenty-four hours, is carried as provided for in the foregoing paragraph.

In other words, once the announcement is made, the law is adopted unless the opponents to the bill force the government to resign through a no-confidence vote! Originally, this text was conceived as a protection for the executive against the excesses of the Fourth Republic with its very high government instability. Article 49 carries very narrow understanding of government responsibility, defined simply as the absence of an absolute hostile majority. This has made it possible to make governments more stable and less vulnerable to fragile majorities. But over time it has turned into a tool in the hands of the executive, even in the absence of a real danger to the government.

As with any use of 49.3, voices on all sides have expressed hostility. Moreover, the two current heads of the executive feature an “anti-49.3” record. The Huffington Post quotes François Hollande arguing in favor of the “abolition of the 49-3” in 2007 (as well as many other now forgotten measures meant to strengthen the powers of Parliament) and Prime Minister Manuel Valls was part a group of “deputés” who, in 2008, introduced an amendment to delete Article 49.3 from the Constitution.

They were also opposed to the only reform of this article, which took place in 2008, under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. The reform was considered too timid. Rather than abolishing the article, it limited its use to the finance bill and one other bill per parliamentary session.

The graph below shows the number of 49.3 per legislature. This includes “complete” five-year legislatures as the last three legislatures, but also shorter ones, such as the 10th (1993-1997) or eighth (1986-1988). The blue-red band above the graph indicates the color of the majority for each legislature (blue = right, red = left).


The all-time champion of 49.3 is Michel Rocard, prime minister during the 9th legislature. At the time, the left held theoretically had an absolute majority in the Assembly. De facto, however, it could not rely on the Communist Party. With 28 uses, the Rocard governments account for one third of the 83 appeals to date. Edith Cresson, during the same legislature, used the article almost once a month. Before them, Pierre Mauroy, Raymond Barre and Jacques Chirac during the 1986 cohabitation had been regular users. François Fillon, the only Prime Minister of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential term, never resorted to 49.3 in 5 years of government.

If the opposition and often much of the majority oppose the use of 49.3, so why is it not abolished once a new majority comes to power? I order to answer this question it is necessary to remember that the world does not look the same from government or opposition benches. The same tool can thus look very attractive to the government and very questionable in the eyes of the opposition. And Article 49.3 is not the only example to illustrate this state of affairs.

The underlying reasons for this almost systematic shift in preferences with regard to article 49. 3 are rather straightforward. The 49.3 is very helpful to incumbent governments. The reasons put forward to justify its use are always more or less the same: “emergency”, the “need” or “no time to lose or risk-taking”. Indeed, in a context of crisis and divisions within the majority, 49.3 appears to be a weapon of last resort. It is a way to re-solidify the majority by confronting it to the danger of new elections. Thus, without even having to improve the bill and convince reticent allies the 49.3 will allow the party of Prime Minister to rely on the absence of opposition, rather than the presence of her majority.

While it is true that parliamentarians do not like the 49.3, there may be secondary benefits to it. It allows “small parties” or government minority partners to dissociate themselves from the government majority on specific bills. Thus, the left wing of the Socialist Party and the Greens can publicly take their distance with the Macron Act and signal their disagreement to their constituents. At the same time, they know full well that they cannot really prevent the adoption of the text. In doing so, they hope to retain a particular electorate, perhaps hostile to the text. Thus, the 49.3 also performs an ‘electoral’ function, as had John Huber (1996) had explained about 20 years ago.

It is therefore remains a valuable tool. To give it away once in power would be short-sighted. This certainly explains the discrepancy between the opposition parties’ advertised projects with regard to article 49.3 and their implementation (or rather, the lack of implementation) of reform once these parties come to power. As a consequence, we can expect new outcries and indignation the next time that the current opposition, when it is in power, resorts again to article 49.3.

[1] The government had already used the same procedure during the first reading. A discussion in French is available here.

John D. Huber, Rationalizing parliament: legislative institutions and party politics in France. Cambridge University Press, 1996.


Emiliano Grossman was born in Buenos Aires and grew up in Germany. He holds degrees from Sciences Po and the University of Cambridge. He has been a senior research fellow at Sciences Po since 2003, working now at the Centre d’études européennes (CEE). He is the co-convenor of the Master’s Programme in European Affairs. He teaches courses on EU politics, interest-group politics and comparative politics at Sciences Po. His research concentrates on economic and financial regulation in the EU and political institutions. He has more generally focused on the variety of state-society relations in the EU and the challenges they are facing. At the same time, he has worked on the political systems of EU member states and the effects of the EU on politics, policy-making and political institutions in France. He recently co-edited a special issue for the 50iest anniversary of the French 5th Republic. He is currently working on two major research projects. The first concerns the political agendas in France, which aims at creating quantitative indicators of political activity for the past 30 years or so. The second deals with the politics of financial liberalization in several EU member states over the past twenty years.

Sébastien Lazardeux – Cohabitation in France: Intra-Executive Conflict, and Legislative Gridlock?

This is a guest post by Dr Sébastien Lazardeux, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY


It is well-known among the readers of this blog that the standard definition of semi-presidentialism does not allow comparison between presidents with real institutional powers and presidents who are mere figureheads. By extension, using cohabitation as an independent variable in studies of semi-presidential institutions can lead to serious problems of inference. A president with significant institutional (and especially legislative) powers is better prepared to block the legislative agenda of a prime minister from the opposition. In such case, what follows is legislative gridlock and intra-executive conflict.

In a recent book published by Palgrave, titled Cohabitation and Conflicting Politics in French Policymaking, I look at cohabitation and its potential effect from a different angle. I present cohabitation as a strategic game played by the president and the prime minister.

In doing so, I argue that while presidential institutional powers are useful in constraining the actions of the prime minister and his cabinet, informal powers (speeches to the nation or other symbolic actions taken by the president) must also be counted as important ways in which the president can fight the premier’s agenda. Cohabitation, in this framework, can be more damaging to the premier’s legislative achievements than previously thought.

This view of cohabitation also questions a still widespread perception of semi-presidential systems as oscillating between presidentialism (under unified government) and parliamentarism (under cohabitation) (see Lijphart 1997 for example) since a president under cohabitation still has enough legitimacy and visibility to play a political role superior to his counterparts in parliamentary systems.

Conceptualizing cohabitation as a strategic game between president and prime minister also allows me determining the environment under which cohabitation is likely to matter, both in terms of legislative efficiency and intra-executive conflict. Here, the argument is rather counter-intuitive. I posit that the prime minister’s ability to introduce and enact important legislation is not due to his absence of institutional power under cohabitation, but his absence of will. He has no incentive to pursue an agenda of important and sometimes controversial reforms when the president is his political opponent, and is likely to use all the power of his function (including his public visibility) to express his opposition to the premier.

The only reason why the prime minister would introduce reforms would be when his legislative majority is uncertain about its capacity to remain in power, and is therefore pushing for an immediate implementation of its program. Overall, rather than creating legislative gridlock, cohabitation can, under the condition above, create legislative paralysis.

By extension, my project discusses how cohabitation can impact intra-executive conflict. The question of intra-executive relations under semi-presidentialism has received a lot of traction in the past decade (see for example Protsyk, 2005, 2006; Sedelius, 2006; Schleiter and Morgan-Jones, 2009). This study participates to this growing literature by adding an independent variable to the causes of intra-executive conflict. In my framework, the president’s propensity to criticize the prime minister openly is directly related to the volume of important legislation introduced and enacted by the government. In other words, the more legislative productivity, the more intra-executive tensions under semi-presidentialism.

Finally, my work tends to show that cohabitation does not promote negotiations between the president and the premier and does not produce moderate policies.

Overall, my argument is in line with those who believe semi-presidentialism is far from being a fool-proof institutional system; it allows cohabitation which, as I have discussed, can be problematic in terms of governance and political stability.

As the title indicates, the study is centered on France and looks at its three periods of cohabitation (1986-1988, 1993-1995, 1997-2002). I adopt a multi-method analysis to treat the impact of cohabitation. First, the three instances of cohabitation are examined qualitatively. Its impact of legislative productivity and intra-executive negotiations is treated quantitatively as well using data from 1967 to 2012.

As the manager of this blog, Prof. Elgie, rightfully argued, France is not the “archetype” of semi-presidential institutions (Elgie, 2009) and using France as a case study limits the generalizability of its findings. However, I would argue that it is a good case for methodological and theoretical reasons. Theoretically, it is evident from what I have argued above that the logic of cohabitation is present in all semi-presidential systems. Methodologically, the French president is not endowed with the same veto capacity than other presidents in semi-presidential institutions. Hence, if the French president can indirectly limit legislative activity, it should be ever truer for a president with a legislative veto. This said, I used Portugal as an additional case for my quantitative analysis of legislative productivity under cohabitation and my results are consistent with my theoretical assumptions.

It may be argued that the book is published at a time when cohabitation in France has become an unlikely possibility. Indeed, the constitutional reform of 2000 reduced the presidential mandate from 7 to 5 years and made it equivalent with the legislative mandate in the lower Chamber of Parliament. Hence, it is doubtful that citizens will elect a president from one party and a legislature in opposition to the president’s party. However, it needs to be noted that the French president has the right to dissolve the assembly. This is what conservative President Chirac did in 1997, thereby losing his parliamentary majority and having to cohabitate for 5 years with a socialist premier. Given the current political climate in France, a presidential dissolution does not seem impossible, and a victory of the opposition a real possibility. Moreover, I would argue that the constitutional reform of 2008, which reduced the powers of the prime minister while increasing the powers of the Parliament, could make cohabitation an even more problematic situation than it has been in the past. Imagine a French premier with less control over his parliamentary majority than was the case before 2008; imagine also the same premier in a situation of cohabitation. This prime minister would have more difficulty in pursuing legislative restraint, which would lead to more common intra-executive conflicts. Cohabitation in France might be less likely, but its impact definitely more harmful.


Elgie, R., 2009. Duverger, Semi-presidentialism and the supposed French archetype. West European Politics, Volume 32, 2, pp.248-267.

Lijphart, A., 1997. Trichotomy or Dichotomy?. European Journal of Political Research, Volume 31, pp. 125-146.

Protsyk, O., 2005. Politics of Intra-executive Conflict in Semipresidential Regimes in Eastern Europe. Eastern European Politics and Society, 19(2), pp. 135-160.

Protsyk, O., 2006. Intra-Executive Competition between President and prime Minister: Patterns of Institutional Conflict and Cooperation Under Semi-Presidentialism. Political studies, 54(2), pp. 219-244.

Schleiter, P. & Morgan-Jones, E., 2010. Who’s in Charge? Presidents, Assemblies and the Political Control of Semi-Presidential Cabinets. Comparative Political Studies, 20(10), pp. 1-27.

Sedelius, T., 2006. The Tug-of-War between Presidents and Prime Ministers Semi-Presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe. Örebro Studies in Political Science 15

Sébastien G. Lazardeux is Assistant Professor of Political Science at St. John Fisher College. He was previously Lecturer at the University of Washington and Post-Doctoral Researcher in Bordeaux, France. He has published in Governance, West European Politics, and French Politics. His work focuses on comparative institutions and radical right politics.

Who fires ministers in semi-presidential systems?

This post summarises the main arguments in Cristina Bucur’s article, “Cabinet ministers under competing pressures: Presidents, prime ministers, and political parties in semi-presidential systems”, Comparative European Politics, 23 February 2015, advance online publication, doi:10.1057/cep.2015.1.

How much control do presidents, prime ministers (PMs) and political parties exercise over cabinet members in semi-presidential systems? This is a challenging question, as the formal and informal powers of presidents and PMs vary considerably among the countries included in the semi-presidential category.

One way in which this variation can be systematized is Shugart and Carey’s (1992) differentiation between premier-presidential and president-parliamentary forms of semi-presidentialism, depending on whether the president can dismiss the cabinet. In president-parliamentary regimes, both parliaments and presidents have the formal power to dismiss the government. In premier-presidential systems, presidents are not granted any constitutional powers to dismiss individual ministers or the cabinet collectively and PMs are formally in charge of the government’s operation.

Whether the executive is unified or divided, in other words whether the president is a member or an opponent of the parliamentary majority during cohabitation situations (Duverger 1996), can also make a difference for ministerial durability and the relative influence of presidents, PMs and political parties over cabinet composition.

A strong presidency can loosen the party–government relationship in semi-presidential systems (Schleiter and Morgan-Jones 2009). According to Samuels and Shugart (2010), this course of action is more likely to take place during periods of unified government, provided that the president is a de facto party leader. Under these circumstances, the prime minister becomes an agent of the president. This argument is supported with consistent evidence that presidents who lacked formal dismissal powers have been able to fire PMs from their own party or coalition. However, principal–agent relations change during cohabitation, when the president opposes the parliamentary majority. Under these circumstances, the president lacks both formal powers and partisan authority over the cabinet.

The article extends this argument for the case of cabinet members. Two tests are carried out. The first one asks whether the president’s apparent ability to reverse the agency relationship between parties and their minister-agents during unified government strengthens his or her control over cabinet composition. The second one looks at whether the shift from a presidential to a prime-ministerial model of government during cohabitation increases the ability of PMs and parties to fire cabinet members.

Empirically, the article focuses on ministerial turnover in the Fifth French Republic across two governments: the 1997–2002 cohabitation government led by PM Lionel Jospin and the 2007–2012 government formed under PM François Fillon after Nicolas Sarkozy and the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) won the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections.

France is a good case for this study for several reasons. First, the French convention of ministerial autonomy reduces the individual ministers’ accountability to the parliament while making their position highly dependent on the president and the prime minister (Thiébault 1994). Second, the 1958 Constitution provides conditions for both presidential and prime-ministerial leadership (Elgie and Machin 1991). Although a shift from presidential to prime-ministerial leadership does occur from one scenario to the other, constitutional experts argue that both actors participate in decision-making about cabinet composition, albeit to much varying degrees under unified government and cohabitation (Carcassonne 2011). Third, although ministers-party links have weakened considerably under the Fifth Republic compared to the Fourth Republic, cabinet members are expected to be less autonomous from their parties during periods of cohabitation. One can therefore test the extent to which the expected increase in party influence over the government under cohabitation affects the length of ministerial tenure.

The data on the tenure of ministers draws on personal characteristics and political experience at the moment of appointment and on individual indicators of performance while in office. Three categories of events are used as measures of individual performance. The first one consists of resignation calls. The second one records public evidence of conflicts between ministers, presidents, PMs, and party principals. This data is collected from over 23,000 newspaper articles selected from LexisNexis. The third category of events experienced by ministers is that of individual reshuffles.

The analysis confirms some of the initial expectations. Presidential pressure is strongly associated with a decrease in the length of ministerial tenure during unified government but not under cohabitation. Prime-ministerial and party control over cabinet composition increase during cohabitation. However, prime-ministerial influence over ministerial removal varies less than expected across the two executive scenarios. This result supports the view that intraparty ties become more restrictive under cohabitation, when the prime minister acts as a party agent, than during unified government, when parties have no ex-post control mechanisms for a directly-elected president (Samuels and Shugart 2010). Moreover, ministerial durability strengthens during cohabitation, confirming the veto-player theory’s expectations that the increase in the number of actors involved in executive decision making should gear the system towards the status quo (Tsebelis 2000; Leuffen 2009).

These findings highlight two aspects of executive decision making in semi-presidential systems. First, intraparty politics is shown to influence considerably the extent of prime-ministerial control over cabinet composition. Future work could examine how party leadership positions and different ways of selecting party leaders affect the agency relationship between parties and their agents in government and the accountability of cabinet members to presidents and PMs.

Second, the variation in ministerial durability under conditions of unified government and cohabitation draws attention to the asymmetrical relationship between voting behaviour and executive decision making in semi-presidential systems. Voters assign executive decision-making responsibility to the president during unified government, while holding the prime minister responsible during cohabitation (Lewis-Beck 1997). Thus, cohabitation occurs as a result of voter dissatisfaction with the president’s status quo. However, the increase in the number of actors involved in executive decision making during cohabitation may limit the prime minister’s ability to change the status quo markedly. Conversely, a vote in favour of the status quo during unified government may be followed by cabinet instability as executive decision making is concentrated in the hands of the president. More research on the factors based on which voters assign decision-making responsibility to the president and the PM under unified government and cohabitation could clarify the relationship between voting behaviour and outcomes of executive decision making in semi-presidential systems.


Carcassonne, G. (2011). La Constitution. 10th ed. Paris: Seuil.

Duverger, M. (1996). Le système politique français. 21st ed. Paris: PUF.

Elgie, R., and Machin, H. (1991). France: The Limits to Prime-ministerial Government in a Semi-presidential System. West European Politics 14(2): 62–78.

Leuffen, D. (2009). Does Cohabitation Matter? French European Policy-Making in the Context of Divided Government. West European Politics 32(6): 1140–60.

Lewis-Beck, M. S. (1997). Who’s the chef? Economic voting under a dual executive. European Journal of Political Research 31(3): 315–25.

Samuels, D., and Shugart, M. S. (2010). Presidents, parties, and prime ministers: how the separation of powers affects party organization and behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schleiter, P., and Morgan-Jones, E. (2009). Party government in Europe? Parliamentary and semi-presidential democracies compared. European Journal of Political Research 48(5): 665–93.

Shugart, M. S., and Carey, J. M. (1992). Presidents and assemblies: constitutional design and electoral dynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thiébault, J.-L. (1994). The Political Autonomy of Cabinet Ministers in the French Fifth Republic. In M. Laver and K. A. Shepsle (eds.) Cabinet Ministers and Parliamentary Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 139–49.

Tsebelis, G. (2000). Veto Players and Institutional Analysis. Governance: An International Journal of Policy and Administration 13(4): 441–74.