France’s New Five-Year Presidential Term

In September 2000 the French voted for a constitutional amendment to shorten the length of the presidential term from 7 to 5 years. In his explanation to the public, President Jacques Chirac relied on populist formulations: “seven years is too long”, “five years is more modern”, “the French will vote more often.” The shortened presidential mandate will have some simple and obvious consequences. Beginning in 2002, the president will be elected for five years. The average voter will now go more often to the polls to choose a president: around fifteen times in his or her life instead of just a dozen. But why and how it was decided to reduce the presidential mandate to five years is more complicated.

The French Exception

France has always cultivated exceptions, but nowhere more so than in its constitutional order. These exceptions have emerged through a series of twelve to fifteen different constitutions over the past two centuries — the exact number depends upon how one counts changes created through “charters” and “constitutional laws”. Emerging from this frenetic past, the 5th Republic was imposed by General de Gaulle in 1958 and has come to be widely accepted by the French people.

The 5th Republic has been stable, but unique in its organization. Constitutional scholars disagree on the proper name for it. Formally, France’s constitution is parliamentary, like that of other European countries, because the government may be voted out of office by the parliament. But it is also presidential, for, if we overlook the formal legal basis of the government and instead consider politics, the president is elected by the people and in principle wields executive power. The constitutional scholar Maurice Duverger has called the French system semi-presidential, a new category that he has also used to describe Austria, Portugal, Ireland and Finland. But the president in these countries does not play a role of political leadership as the French president does. France’s constitutional order is, in sum, unique.

Because of its hybrid constitutional order, France is also unique in respect to the length of the term of government. In all other consolidated democracies, a single election determines the government of the country. In European countries, this is the parliamentary election. Some countries have a single national election with universal direct suffrage. The government and its leader then emerge from the parliamentary majority. This is the British model, one that has been adopted with modifications in Germany and Spain. Other countries hold two direct elections, for the parliament and for the president, but the presidential election has no consequence for the government. Socialist president Soares of Portugal, for example, was elected and reelected even while a center-right coalition controlled the government. The United States also holds two elections, but only the presidential election creates the government.

France is the only country with two fully governmental elections. Parliamentary elections in France, when they create a new parliamentary majority, lead to a new government. If that new government is politically opposed to the sitting president, the latter must accommodate to government through cohabitation. Recent periods of cohabitation have occurred in 1986-1988, 1993-1995, and 1997-present. This system of parliamentary precedence is the norm throughout Europe. In France, however, a presidential election also creates a new government, one formed under the winner of the presidential majority. When the opposition wins the presidency, the new president dissolves the national assembly in order to obtain a parliamentary majority that will advance his own political agenda. This situation, which occurred most recently in 1981 and 1988, resembles more closely the political logic of the American system.

France’s Electoral Arrhythmia

France thus has a system of dual elections, and these elections were until now entirely disconnected. The president was elected for seven years, the national assembly for five years. The result has been unusual in the extreme. In Britain, each government holds power for five years; in Germany, for four years. But the duration of political mandate for each successive government in France goes through wild fluctuations. As Jean-Luc Parodi has described it, political power in France is held for the period separating any two general elections: either between a presidential and a national assembly election, or vice versa. In principle, this creates a shifting duration of government administrations that repeats itself in a cycle lasting 35 years. Each cycle proceeds through ten governments lasting 5 years, 2 years, 3 years, 4 years, 1 year, 5 years, 1 year, 4 years, 3 years, 2 years, and again 5 years.

To complicate matters further, this theoretical cycle may be perturbed by the resignation (1969) or death (1974) of a president, or by the dissolution of the national assembly (1962, 1968, 1981, 1988, 1997). The actual duration of each French government has therefore been even more irregular, and somewhat shorter, than predicted by theory. On average, governments in the 5th Republic have held power for about 3 years. But this is only an average. Giscard and the Right held power for four years in 1974, then three years in 1978. Mitterrand and the Left held power for five years in 1981 (then again in 1988), the Right for two years in 1986 and again in 1993. Chirac had three years ahead of him when he was elected in 1995, but settled for only two, having called for the dissolution of the national assembly immediately following his election. Most recently, the Left gained 5 years in power thanks to Chirac’s failed 1997 national assembly dissolution. The introduction of the quinquennat, the five year presidential term, will in most cases put an end to this electoral arrhythmia. It should also limit periods of cohabitation, as occurs when the president’s party loses a subsequent parliamentary election.

The Conditions for Amendment

Why did France decide to amend its electoral cycle now? The question raises basic issues about how complex societies reform, and two alternative explanations have been proposed. One explanation of the quinquennat describes a logical, progressive shift towards the five-year term. In this more positive view, modern constitutional theorists first thrust the issue into the public debate. The weight of public opinion surveys then revealed an enduring preference for a five-year presidential mandate. It was finally accepted by Chirac in the understanding that the Left would use it as a core issue in their 2002 presidential campaign. This explanation sees the current reform as the outcome of a rational and democratic process.

A second, equally accurate explanation emphasizes the role of opportunism and accident. A first effort to shorten the presidential term was attempted by Georges Pompidou, the successor to General de Gaulle, in 1973. It failed, primarily because of an event that had nothing to do with the problem, namely the Yom Kippur war in the Middle East. The war caused Pompidou’s majority to lose pro-Israel voters, and the reform process was halted. Pompidou’s death put an end to this effort. His successors, first Giscard d’Estaing and then Mitterrand, avoided the issue in order not to shorten their own terms in government. Mitterrand actually campaigned on a proposal to move either to a 5 year term or to a non-renewable seven year term, but once elected he tabled both initiatives. Following a similar pattern, Chirac defended the five-year term in 1973, then opposed it in 1995.

The five-year presidential term was put back on the agenda first by academics in 1997. Three years later, it was advocated especially by former prime minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who hoped to play a new role in public life. He also hoped to annoy Jacques Chirac, who had pointedly not supported him in his own presidential bid in 1981. For Lionel Jospin and the Left, support for the five-year presidential term came naturally, since it had been a part of their campaign platform both in the 1995 presidential election and in the 1997 legislative election. Chirac also finally gave his support to the idea, in 2000, but for purely strategic reasons. He had his eye on the 2002 election, and because of his advanced age (he is 70 years old), he felt that winning a new five year term would be more feasible than winning a second seven year term.

This account of the quinquennat is, in short, one of political opportunism. France’s seven-year presidential term was created in 1873 as a provisional measure, a place holder until the monarch was returned to power. The system endured for 129 years. Pompidou was unable to reform it because of war in the Middle East. Mitterrand renounced reform so that he could be president for fourteen years. Chirac has accepted reform only because of his advanced age. This ambiguous political context may help to explain why only 30 percent of French voters turned out for the referendum of 24 September 2000, although 73 percent of these supported the new five-year term.

The quinquennat may lead to a greater rationalization of French democracy, but nothing guarantees this absolutely. In the spring of 2002, France will elect both the president and the National Assembly. French voters may decide to select the same party for both elections, thereby putting an end to cohabitation. But a coherent set of votes is not guaranteed, and the unexpected is always possible. Should the president die, or should he resign, elections for president and the national assembly might once again become decoupled. In practice, we are likely to have a coherent set of votes in 2002, with a government mandate lasting until 2007. French democracy will take on a five year cycle, or at least tend towards a coherent political agenda every five years. If an accident breaks this new harmony, a dissolution of parliament should allow the new president to re-establish it. France will thereby have lost one of its exceptions: the unruly attribution of political power. This is the very most important impact of the reform. But France still retains its other exception, in that it remains the only parliamentary democracy with presidential leadership.

Olivier Duhamel is Professor of Constitutional Law and Political Science at Sciences Po, Paris. He is also director of the journal Pouvoirs and a member of the European Parliament.