French Institutions

The Constitution of 4 October 1958 provides the institutional basis for the Fifth Republic. It has been amended several times to institute election of the President of the Republic by direct universal suffrage (1962), incorporate a new title defining the criminal liability of members of the Government (1993), establish a single parliamentary session, enlarge the area of application of the referendum (1995), institute transitional provisions relating to New Caledonia (1998), establish European Economic and Monetary Union, ensure equal access of men and women to elective office and positions, recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (1999) and shorten the Presidential term of office (2000).



The nine-member Constitutional Council is responsible in particular for ensuring that elections are properly conducted and fair, and that constitutional by laws and other legislation submitted to it are constitutional.

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The Head of State is elected for a five-year term by direct universal suffrage (establishment of the five-year term following the referendum of 24 September 2000). François Hollande became the seventh President of the Fifth Republic on May 6, 2012.
The President of the Republic appoints the Prime Minister and, on the latter’s recommendation, appoints the other members of the Government (Article 8 of the Constitution).

He presides over the Council of Ministers, promulgates Acts of Parliament and is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. He may dissolve the National Assembly and, in an emergency, exercise special powers (article 16).



Under the direction of the Prime Minister, the government defines and carries out national policy. It is answerable to Parliament (Article 20). The Prime Minister steers the Government’s and ensures the implementation of legislation (article 21). Jean-Marc Ayrault was appointed Prime Minister on May 15, 2012.



Parliament is made up of two assemblies:

  1. the Senate is elected by indirect universal suffrage for a six-year term (reduced from nine years in 2003). The house is renewable by one-third every three years. The last election took place in October 2011.
  2. the National Assembly’s members (deputies) are elected by direct universal suffrage for a five-year term. The most recent general election was held in June 2012.
    The two assemblies supervise the Government and pass legislation. In the event of disagreement on a law, the National Assembly makes the final decision.



The French legal system is the "guardian of individual liberty" (Article 66 of the Constitution). It operates with a clear-cut distinction between judicial courts, with jurisdiction in disputes between persons and administrative courts, with jurisdiction in all cases involving disputes between citizens and public authorities.

French legal system

At the time of the French Revolution, the law of 16 and 24 August 1790 laid down the principle of the separation of administrative and judicial authorities: judicial courts were prohibited from dealing with administrative matters. This law led to a dual legal system and the creation, under the Consulate, of the Council of State.

Two centuries later, this dual legal system is still very much alive. Judicial and administrative authorities each have two levels of jurisdiction (first instance and appeal). The Court of Appeal (Cour de cassation) is the highest jurisdiction in the judicial system, and the Council of State the highest in the administrative one. Disputes of competence between the two systems are settled by the Tribunal des Conflits.

Also worth of mention is the growing importance of European jurisdictions: the Court of Justice of the European Communities and the European Court of Human Rights.

There are two types of courts:

  1. Civil courts: ordinary (district courts) or specialised (subdistrict courts, commercial courts, social security courts and industrial tribunals for disputes between employees and employers).
  2. Criminal courts
    which deal with three types of offence:
    • Minor offences, tried by police courts
    • Major or technical offences, tried by criminal courts
    • Serious crimes, tried by the Assize Court.
    There is also a special court, the Juvenile Court, for both civil and criminal cases.

The highest judicial body is the Cour de Cassation (Supreme Court of Appeal), which rules on appeals against court-of-appeal judgements.
The Conseil d’État is the supreme administrative court and court of final appeal on the legality of administrative acts. The Government also consults the Conseil d’État for its opinion on bills and certain draft decrees.

Dernière modification : 10/08/2020

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