An Impossible Role to Play: the Prime Minister on the Stage of the French Constitutional System

Guillaume TUSSEAU (Sciences Po Law School)

The ambition of the Constitution of the Fifth was to restore what Georges Burdeau called the “state’s power”. According to the most common analysis in 1958, the Third Republic and the Fourth Republic had proved incapable of handling major political issues mostly because of the domination of Parliament. Absolute parliamentarianism led to the government being constantly under threat. Governmental instability resulted into an impossibility to face the circumstances. The war in Algeria led to De Gaulle’s accepting the position of “président du Conseil” only to put an end to the Fourth Republic and establish a new Constitution. The latter had to be based of five major principles, among which governmental responsibility. This implied that the new constitutional text had to establish a parliamentary regime, distinguishing between the powers of a head of state and those of a prime minister. Several possible evolutions were possible from the provisions of the constitutional text. It turned out that the political dynamics of the Fifth Republic led to two major readings of the Constitution. Under the dominant one, the President of the Republic seems to have absorbed most of the powers of the Prime minister, prompting debates regarding the very utility of such a position, and even suggesting amending the Constitution in a more outspoken form of presidentialism. But during other periods, known as “cohabitation”, where a President is facing an opposite National Assembly (1986-1988, 1993-1995, 1997-2002), a more traditionally parliamentary reading of the institutions appeared. Under these circumstances, the Prime minister’s role seems to comply more strictly with the constitutional text. Similar oscillations raise many doubts as to the nature of the current French regime. This revival of the Prime minister may nevertheless be short-lived. First, the President’s mandate, which lasted seven years, has been reduced to five years and aligned on that of the National Assembly. Second, the legislative elections take place a few weeks after the presidential elections. The “quinquennat” thus paradoxically contributed to reinforcing the President’s position, and minoring durably that of the Prime minister. One may very well wonder whether the role of Prime minister is in fact at all possible within the framework of the Fifth Republic.