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Everything You Need to Know About France's Elections

March 13,2017 08:43

In France's most consequential election in decades, citizens will have to cast their ballot four times. It's not just the two-round presidential election concluding in May that will determine the country's direction. A new legislature will also be ...and more »

Why they take two months, and why the president has less power than you think.
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Voters in many countries choose their national leaders by going to the polls once. In France’s most consequential election in decades, citizens will have to cast their ballot four times.It’s not just the two-round presidential election concluding in May that will determine the country’s direction. A new legislature will also be chosen over another two rounds of voting in June. Only then will a clear picture emerge of where France is heading.With the nationalist Marine Le Pen promising to hold a referendum on taking France out of the euro, investors are focusing on the mechanics of the election process and the constitutional checks and balances that will constrain the next head of state.

“To know how much power the new president will have you need to look at all four rounds,” said Armel Le Divellec, a professor of constitutional law at Paris 2 University Pantheon-Assas. “The classic scenario sees the president winning a majority in the National Assembly. If not, stability will depend on who does and the ability of everyone to work together.”

Here is a guide to how it works and what it means.How is the president chosen?Voters pick their head of state every five years in a direct election in which every vote has an equal weight. In theory, a candidate can win on the first ballot (see below). In practice, the election has always gone to a second round, generally two weeks later. This year presidential voting will be held April 23 and May 7. Polling stations close between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. local time, and the result usually becomes clear before midnight. Does the first-round winner always come out on top?No. In the eight elections since the system was implemented in 1965, the first-round winner became the president five times. In 1974, 1981 and 1995, the candidate who placed second came back to win.Where does the parliament fit in?

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The French return to the polls June 11 and 18 to select the National Assembly, the lower chamber of parliament. Voters in 577 constituencies will choose their representatives. If the president’s party has a majority, the executive powers are concentrated with the president. If the opposition gets a majority, it can govern and the president must go along, a practice called cohabitation. If no majority emerges, the president can maneuver to create one.
The National Assembly is the most powerful of the parliament’s two chambers. It has the final say on budget legislation, can topple a government with a no-confidence vote and, alongside the Senate, can approve or block a referendum.All that means that the majority — or the divisions — that emerge in June will determine how much power the next president will actually have.So who runs the country?There is a balance of powers at the top of the French state. The president has executive power but can’t govern the nation without the support of the prime minister and the cabinet, who are needed to pass legislation and approve spending.  While the prime minister and his cabinet can override parliament in some situations, as then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls did last year on labor reform, the president can’t do that alone.If Le Pen wins, would she control the parliament too?Almost certainly not. Le Pen’s National Front currently has only two lawmakers in the National Assembly and no declared allies who might help to form a coalition.While front-runner Emmanuel Macron also has little chance of a majority for his year-old En Marche! party, he’s from the political center. He’d thus be more likely to be able to assemble a coalition of lawmakers from other parties.Can the president call a referendum unilaterally?That’s the big question. The constitution says no.The 1958 constitution provides for referenda in both article 11 and article 89, but it requires the president to have the backing of either the prime minister or majorities in both chambers of the parliament. The center-right Republicans currently have a majority in the Senate and half of the upper chamber is up for re-election in September. One historical precedent that Le Pen’s supporters cite was in 1962, when then-president Charles de Gaulle bypassed the parliament to force through a referendum on the presidential voting system. De Gaulle, though, had the backing of the prime minister and the cabinet, and even then he sparked a constitutional crisis.There’s one chink in the constitutional protections, according to Le Divellec. Between the new president’s inauguration in May and the new legislature being seated in early July, the president must name a temporary prime minister and has free rein to pick a cabinet.That interim period is when a president could push through a referendum — the old assembly would be called back to debate it, but wouldn’t have the power of veto. Still, the two-month window would likely be too short in practice to organize another ballot.What can the president do alone?The president has the nuclear codes and once a year can dissolve the National Assembly. Article 16 of the constitution also gives the president “extraordinary powers” in times of exceptional crisis, such as an invasion or domestic insurrection.—With assistance from Hayley Warren

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