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Explainer: what is the role of a French president?

We look at how much power the head of state who is also Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and a Co-Prince of Andorra has

The president’s official residence is the Elysée Palace Pic: Kiev.Victor / Shutterstock

French citizens went to the polls yesterday (April 10) to vote in the first round of this year’s presidential election. 

Incumbent president and candidate Emmanuel Macron (La République en Marche) obtained 27.6% of the vote, and will face off in the second round against Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement national), who achieved 23.4% of the vote. 

Read more: Macron - Le Pen in second round: How did your area of France vote?

We look at the official powers, functions and duties that France’s next president will carry out when they begin their term on May 13.

Read more: What happens now in the French election, will there be a TV debate?

Titles 

Head of state 

The French president is the head of the nation’s institutions according to the constitution of the Fifth Republic.

They choose the prime minister and other ministers, whom they may also dismiss if they deem it necessary. In theory, they share power with their prime minister, who is head of the government, but in practice a president with a parliamentary majority carries greater executive control.

The president also presides over Conseil des ministres cabinet meetings, which take place each week in order to discuss parliamentary bills and decrees. 

Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces 

France’s president is charged with guaranteeing the nation’s independence, territorial integrity and the observance of treaties, and is therefore responsible for the direction of the Armed Forces. They may also order the use of France’s nuclear weapons.

In this capacity, they preside over Défense nationale committee meetings. However, it is the government as a whole which “determines and directs national policy” and “manages the Armed Forces.”

Co-Prince of Andorra 

The microstate of Andorra has two heads of state or co-princes: the bishop of Urgell in Catalonia and the French president.

Each co-prince appoints a representative, with Patrick Strzoda acting on President Macron’s behalf. 

Joan Enric Vives Sicília has been serving as the bishop of Urgell since 2003.

The co-prince role is largely symbolic, but as head of state the French president does have the power to grant pardons and to nominate members of the Conseil Supérieur de la Justice et du Tribunal Constitutionnel.

Honorary proto-canon of the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran

France’s presidents are given the honorific title of proto-canon of the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome, in a tradition which dates back to the days of the monarchy: every French king since the seventeenth century had also held this title. 

This position does not grant the president any religious powers, but can help to strengthen ties with the Vatican.

Honorary canon of Saint-Jean de Maurienne 

This honorific title, which relates to a church in Savoie, was demanded by François I when he invaded the department in 1536.

Honorary canon of Embrun Cathedral

This title was first accorded to Louis XIII and Charles de Gaulle was the last president to have claimed it. Embrun Cathedral is in the department of Hautes-Alpes.

Protector of the Domaine national de Chambord

This relates to an area situated within the Loir-et-Cher department, which is home to a château placed under the “high protection” of the president of the Republic and the agriculture, culture and environment ministers.

Protector of the Académie française 

The French head of state has the power to approve – or not – the election of a new member to the Académie française, the highest institution of the French language.

Functions, powers and duties

Juridical powers

Article 64 of the French Constitution states that the president is “guarantor of the independence of judicial authority.”

For this, they are assisted by the Conseil supérieur de la magistrature. 

They also have the power to appoint judges. 

Dissolving the Assemblée nationale 

The president may dissolve the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly) following discussion with the prime minister and the assembly presidents, in order to resolve a crisis or stalemate.

A general election should take place no less than 20 and no more than 40 days after this has been done. This allows the president to attempt to secure a parliamentary majority or to increase their majority.

The Assemblée nationale has been dissolved five times since 1958; four of those occasions resulted in victory for the incumbent president, with one leading to defeat.

Invoking exceptional powers 

The president may place the country under emergency powers when the institutions of the Republic, the independence of the nation, the integrity of its territory or the fulfilment of its international commitments are under serious and immediate threat. 

In these circumstances, Article 16 of the Constitution may be applied and the president will have the power to impose exceptional measures to ensure that the nation’s institutions can carry out their duties.

They must inform the population of these measures in a message.

Communicating with Parliament

France’s president does not have the right to enter the Assemblée nationale or Sénat chambers to address MPs or senators. 

However, they can call for parliamentarians to gather at Versailles for a presidential address, or ask a representative such as the prime minister to read a message to Parliament.

This would normally happen at the beginning of a president’s tenure, after legislative elections take place or under exceptional circumstances. 

Calling a referendum 

The president has the power to call a referendum for two different reasons. The first is a referendum for the adoption of a new law, which has happened nine times in the Fifth Republic period. 

A referendum may also be called so that the population can vote on changes to the Constitution.

Maintaining the authority of the state

The French president is responsible for making sure that public powers work as they should and that the Constitution is respected, although they are also accorded a certain degree of personal interpretation. 

They name three of the nine members of France’s highest constitutional authority, the Conseil constitutionnel. 

Powers shared with the prime minister and/or government 

Sign ordinances and promulgate laws 

Presidents sign ordinances and decrees which have been examined by the Conseil des ministres.

They also promulgate laws in the 15 days after they have been definitively approved by Parliament. The president cannot refuse this promulgation, which is also countersigned by the prime minister and other ministers involved with the bill.

Choosing ministers and other public figures

Although the president has the power to appoint new ministers, this is often on the advice of the prime minister. 

This also goes for figures including prefects, government advisors, ambassadors, the grand chancellor of the Légion d’honneur, judges, army officers and the heads of France’s gendarmerie

Granting pardon 

The president has the power to grant pardons on criminal convictions, prompting the release of prisoners or at least reducing their sentence. 

However, these decrees must be countersigned by the prime minister and the minister for justice.

Related articles 

Who gets the vote of the ten non-qualifier French election candidates?

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

Expressions you may hear in the lead up to final French election vote

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