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Did you know: France's president was not always elected by the people

Until 1962 the president was chosen by an electoral college of 80,000 officials including MPs and senators, mayors and some other local councillors

The French Constitution did not originally guarantee the president was to be elected through nationwide elections Pic: Billion Photos / Shutterstock

President Emmanuel Macron was reelected for a second five-year term yesterday (April 24) after gaining 58.54% of the vote to defeat far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

Read more: What does Le Pen’s strong election result say about France?

It came as the culmination of an election process during which more than 45 million French people were called to the polls. 

Electing the French president by public vote is, however, a relatively recently-revived practice in France, and in fact under the previous constitution, the president was not even the political figure who held the most power.

The electoral process we see today was established by General Charles de Gaulle through a 1962 referendum. Marine Le Pen wanted to use a similar mechanism to bring in her  ‘priorité nationale’ (national priority) policy if elected. 

Read more: What is Le Pen’s ‘French nationals first’ policy and is it legal?

We look at what changed in the Constitution to include the French people into the decision-making process of a presidential election.

A ceremonial role only 

The first president of France is considered to have been Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (nephew of the original Napoleon Bonaparte) under the short-lived Second Republic from 1848.

Its recently written constitution provided at that time for direct voting by male citizens for the president. He achieved a - today - unthinkable result of 75% in the first round. The Second Republic was followed by the Second Empire after the president declared himself emperor.

However the political situation had changed some 20 years later. From 1870 until 1958, under both the Third and Fourth Republics, it was the prime minister who held the bulk of all legislative powers, with the president of the French Republic exercising a largely ceremonial role.  

The idea of a president elected by the people was brushed aside by legislators at the time, for fear that the person elected could wield dictatorial powers, especially after the 1851 coup d’état by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. In fact he was to be elected by the MPs and Senators.

The negligible legislative role of the president under these two constitutions was described by General de Gaulle in a famous quote, where he said that the president “inaugure les chrysanthèmes” (literally “inaugurates chrysanthemums” but perhaps roughly translated as “opens flower shows”). 

A new system which accorded more power to the president was introduced by General de Gaulle and revealed in the Bayeux speech of 1946. 

De Gaulle’s idea was to seek a balance between the executive and legislative branches by voting for a political figure that would stand above every political party but that would still be dependent on the laws enacted by parliament. 

Explainer: what is the role of a French president?

Universal Indirect suffrage system

However the constitution of the Fifth Republic did not include the election of the president through a nationwide vote in its initial draft, and functioned with a universal indirect suffrage system.

The French president was elected by an electoral college of 80,000 officials. The figures in question were normally members of the Senate and the Assemblée nationale, as well as departmental or municipal councillors, who had been previously voted in by the public in their own elections and so were seen to represent them. 

He was still however considered to have less political stature than the Assemblée nationale, which was the only political institution elected by universal direct suffrage.

Revision of the Constitution in 1962

The political turmoil of the war in Algeria worked in Mr de Gaulle’s favour when he proposed that the French people vote in a referendum to elect the French president through a nationwide vote. 

Considering that this change would strengthen his position at the expense of parliament, he said that it would enable him to enact the Evian Accords that sought to give Algeria its independence from France.

Read more: Comment: The Algerian War remains controversial in France 60 years on

Some 62.3% of the electorate voted in the referendum for the direct election of presidents by the people. De Gaulle went on to sign the Evian Accords, and to be re-elected - by both men and women this time - by the new method in 1965. 

To change the Constitution with regard to the election of the president de Gaulle used article 11 of the Constitution that states, among other headings, that a sitting president can submit a referendum to the French people about a question related to the organisation of public powers. Even so, the move was controversial, and in opposition of the (non-binding) view of the Conseil constitutionnel, because normally another section of the Constitution provides for a procedure for revising the Constitution itself. 

Article 11 was mentioned during the 2022’s presidential campaign by Ms Le Pen as part of her 'priorité nationale' policy, which would seek to grant greater privileges to French citizens, giving them priority over foreign nationals with regards to matters such as social housing and jobs.

Ms Le Pen’s legislative rehaul would have most likely been deemed unconstitutional, experts told The Connexion. However, she said she would bypass Parliament by calling the French people to vote on the question through a referendum in a move similar to that of General de Gaulle in 1962. 

Even if Ms Le Pen had gained the trust of the French people through the referendum, the Constitutional Council (Conseil constitutionnel) would have been able to invalidate the referendum before it was held.

The Constitutional Council has the power to invalidate a referendum if it deems the question would damage the traditional order of public institutions. 

This has been the case since the ‘Hauchemaille decision’, named after the lawyer who brought a case forward in 2000. Before then it was only notified when a referendum was to be held and could give an opinion only.

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Macron - Le Pen: What do they each pledge to change if elected?

Marine Le Pen says French headscarf ban ‘no longer main priority’

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