• Setting the agenda for constitutional reform



    (Last of four parts)

    The French system of government

    The French System of governance has been proposed by some quarters for adoption. Let us examine closely how the system works.

    In France, the traditional division that exists between parliamentary and presidential systems of government has been obscured by the emergence of dual leadership within the executive branch of government.

    The 1958 Constitution established the new office of the President with powers additional to those normally associated with a head of state. The President was given a very wide range of functions and powers with which to perform them. These included acting as a guarantor of national independence and protecting the functioning of public powers and the continuity of the state. Key duties included appointing the prime minister, presiding over the cabinet, and acting as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Special emergency powers could also be exercised by the President.

    The power and prestige of the presidency has grown, especially since direct election was introduced in 1962.

    The “monarchical drift” of the office was acknowledged by President Jacques Chirac during the 1995 presidential election. The president serves for a period of seven years and the office is seen as France’s key political prize.

    The division of power between the President and prime minister is of central importance to an understanding of the operations of the French system of government. A major role of the President is to appoint (and dismiss) the prime minister. A newly appointed prime minister does not have to seek a specific vote of confidence from the national assembly, although he or she is accountable to that body. In making such a choice, however, the President is constrained by the political composition of the National Assembly. It follows, therefore, that the power of the President is greatest when the President’s party controls the National Assembly and when the prime minister is effectively a presidential nominee.

    However, if the party affiliation of the President and the majority in the legislature differs, the President is forced to select a prime minister and a government who enjoy the support of the National Assembly. The prime minister is more likely to be assertive in such situations since he or she possesses a separate power base and is not totally reliant on presidential support to remain in office. This may, thus, reduce the President’s power, and it occurred between 1988 and 1989 and between 1993 and 1995, when a socialist President (Mitterand) was forced to coexist with a right-wing government dominated by the Gaullists. It occurred subsequently (in 1997) when the Gaullist President Chirac was forced to appoint the socialist Lionel Jospin as prime minister following the latter’s victory in the elections to the National Assembly.

    In such period of cohabitation, however, a President is far from impotent. Ultimately, it is possible to dissolve the legislature.

    In September 2000, electors voted in a referendum to reduce the presidential term in France to five years. This reform would reduce future periods of cohabitation although potentially sacrificing the greater degree of stability provided when the President serves an elongated term in office.

    The American President

    The American Constitution placed the executive branch in the hands of a President who is now directly elected. The President serves a term of four years and may be re-elected on one further occasion. The power exercised by a President depends to some extent on personal choice. The President may be viewed as an official who should merely enforce the laws passed by Congress, or he may be a dynamic initiator of public policy. These views are further flavored by popular opinions.

    The belief that the American President should be strong and assertive in the conduct of public affairs was bolstered by the need of decisive presidential action to cope with the Depression in the 1930s. But this view has subsequently been revised by the perceived failings of a strong President as revealed by the outcome of the Vietnam War (which was associated with presidential initiative) and the belief that strong executive action could lead to abuse of power, as was evidenced in Watergate and the subsequent forced resignation of President Nixon in 1974. Such factors have tended to make the public suspicious of presidents who wish to exercise dynamic leadership. Their ability to initiate actions was further weakened by the size of the budget deficit, which grew enormously during the Reagan-Bush years (1980-1992) and served as a constraint on policies involving state intervention.

    Such considerations have greatly affected the climate within which contemporary presidents operate. But even within such a climate, presidents retain a considerable degree of maneuver. They possess a range of formal and informal powers and may also exploit their position as the only unifying force to secure the attainment of their objectives. We shall now consider a range of factors that have a bearing on the power of a modern President.

    The President’s mandate

    The mandate that a President obtains in a general election may greatly influence subsequent behavior. A President may feel it is legitimate to exercise the initiative in public affairs when the outcome of an election is less clear (for example, the President fails to secure a majority of the popular vote) or it appears that the result was more concerned with the rejection of one candidate than with the popular endorsement of the winner. The President may find it more difficult to promote policy vigorously especially when this involves initiating radical changes. The power of President George W. Bush is especially likely to be undermined by the lack of a mandate. He secured victory in the 2000 presidential election by the very narrow margin of five Electoral College votes. Not only did his Democratic rival in the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore, secure over 500,000 more popular votes nationwide, but considerable concern remained regarding the legitimacy of Bush’s victory in the key state Florida. This may suggest that attempts by President Bush to pursue a right-wing political agenda will not meet with popular approval.

    Focused policy

    Presidential success in initiating public policy may be most easily realized when policy goals are clearly focused. This suggests a limited set of key objectives that enable both Congress and public opinion in general to appreciate the President’s fundamental concerns. It has been argued that President Carter (1975-1981) put to disparate a range of proposals at the outset of his presidency, which presented a confusing statement of presidential objectives. Accordingly, President Reagan (1981-1989) presented a program that included fewer key issues. Subsequently, relations with Congress were fashioned around achieving these. The initial efforts of President Clinton (1993-2001) to focus on domestic policy issues was impeded by the emergence of defence and foreign policy issues (including the Bosnian crisis) which demanded attention at the expense of the original objectives.


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