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POLITICS

What does a French Prime Minister actually do?

In many countries the Prime Minister is the ruler, but France has a system where the PM plays a different - but still important - role.

What does a French Prime Minister actually do?
They live in the rather lovely Hotel de Matignon, but what does the French Prime Minister actually do? Photo by THOMAS COEX / POOL / AFP

Most people around the world can name the president of France, but you need to be following politics a little more closely to be able to instantly recall the name of the Prime Minister. 

And that’s due to the differences in both role and profile of the president and his (yes, France has never had a female president) prime minister.

The president is directly elected once every five years and once elected becomes the chef d’état (head of state). This means that as well as being in charge of the political direction of the country they are also the head of the armed forces (nominally, at least) and also take on the formal roles of state such as greeting foreign dignitaries. 

Since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958, France has had 9 presidents and most people could at least have a stab at naming them all.*

In the same time period there have been 24 prime ministers (including one woman), and you would have to be quite the political expert to get all of their names.** 

Unlike the president, the Prime Minister is not directly elected, they are appointed by the president, and can also be removed from the role without the need for any kind of vote.

Convention dictates that the president and the prime minister have lunch together once a week, although this had to be suspended during the early part of the pandemic. 

The relationship between a president and his prime minister can quickly sour. Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP

So what do they do?

The simple definition of it is that the president runs the country and the prime minister runs the government, but it is of course more complicated in reality.

Foreign policy and defence is for the president while domestic policy comes under the remit of the Prime Minister. However, the president generally sets the policy goals and often announces high-profile policies, leaving the PM with the task of guiding the legislation through parliament. Exactly how directly involved the president gets with policy detail very much depends on the personality of the man in the Elysée.

Prime Ministers are also in charge of the day-to-day running of the government and head up the Council of Ministers, who take the key decisions of government. 

The PM deals with hiring and firing of the government ministers, technically they ‘propose’ candidates for each ministry to the president, although again most presidents get pretty involved in picking their ministers.

In some areas the PM acts as the president’s deputy or does the jobs that the president doesn’t want to do – for example, when Emmanuel Macron announced his controversial pension reforms in 2019 it was the job of then-prime minister Edouard Philippe to meet with the unions and try (unsuccessfully) to get them onside.

The role of Prime Minister is the second highest office in France, although if the president dies in office his role is taken by the president of the Senate. 

Elections

The PM also has a more overtly political role in that they fight elections.

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Once in office, convention says that the president should not get involved in the elections – parliamentary, local and European – that happen during their term.

However in order for them to be able to pass legislation it’s crucial that they have a majority in the Assemblée nationale, so the PM is delegated to make sure the president’s party has enough seats in parliament so that legislation can be passed.  

Who are they accountable to?

Technically, the Prime Minister is accountable to the National Assembly, not to the head of state. In practice, as explained below, they can be strongly urged by the head of state to resign.

When it comes to criminal proceedings, the Prime Minister, ministers and secretaries of state can be tried by the Court of Justice of the Republic for crimes and misdemeanours committed in the exercise of their functions. 

This is the court France’s former Health Minister, Agnès Buzyn, was tried in after being accused of ‘endangering the lives of others’ due to her statements early in the pandemic.

Resignations

It’s an often-repeated joke that the Prime Minister’s main job is to get sacked whenever the president needs to either boost his popularity or distance himself from an unpopular policy – and it’s certainly true that Prime Ministers rarely last as long in the job as presidents do.

The convention is that prime ministers always resign, rather than be sacked, but it’s pretty widely understood what has happened when the prime minister suddenly departs in the wake of a policy disaster.

It’s also wise not to try and eclipse the boss – Philippe was widely rumoured to have been sacked by Macron in 2020 for the crime of becoming more popular.

Philippe later revealed in his book on government and governing that the tradition is that on their first day in the role, the PM hands the president a signed but undated resignation letter, so that they can be ‘resigned’ at any time. 

So how do you get to be Prime Minister?

You need to be appointed by the president, so you either need to be a political ally or a rival.

It’s usually an ally of the president, chosen for their loyalty and effectiveness in making sure that the president’s wishes are carried out. It is not necessary for Prime Ministers to be in an elected office (eg MP, mayor) in order to be picked, although it is usual. 

Often they are well known in the political world before their appointment, but not always.

Jean who? Photo by Raymond ROIG / AFP

Jean Castex was so unknown when he was appointed Prime Minister by Emmanuel Macron in 2020 that many news outlets struggled to find a photograph of him.

Rivals

But sometimes the Prime Minister is the president’s political rival, in what’s known as a cohabitation.

A cohabitation (which doesn’t involve the president and PM actually living together, that would be a colocation) occurs when a president finds himself without a majority in parliament.

He then has to make a deal with the head of the political group that does have the majority. In exchange for their support in parliament, this person will usually demand that they are named Prime Minister.

What follows is usually an uneasy coalition – this has happened twice in recent years, in 1986 leftist Mitterrand had to appoint the centre-right Jacques Chirac as his PM. Chirac went on to be elected president, but he was forced into a cohabitation in his turn with the leftist Lionel Jospin in 1997.

The French PM lives and works in the rather beautiful Hotel de Matignon for the duration of their term, and in political shorthand are sometimes known as the locataire de Matignon (Matignon occupant), while decisions that come from the PM’s office as often referred to simply as ‘from Matignon’, in the same way as you would talk about a ‘White House source’ or a ‘spokesman for No 10’ in the US or UK. 

* The presidents since 1958 were Charles de Gaulle, Alain Poher, Georges Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron. Bonus points for remembering Alain Poher – he was acting president twice, once after the resignation of Charles de Gaulle and once after the death in office of Georges Pompidou

** Google it  

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POLITICS

‘Build together’: The French government’s to do list for the next five years

France’s Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne outlined on Wednesday the government’s plans for the next five years in her first speech to the National Assembly since June’s legislative elections.

'Build together': The French government's to do list for the next five years

After congratulating newly elected deputies, Borne called on opposition parties to work with the governing party to reform, the French having chosen during the last legislative elections not to give them an absolute majority. 

“The French are asking us to take our responsibilities. We will do it. Together we will respond to the challenge of abstention … the demand for action … we will meet the requirement of responsibility,” she said.

“They urge us to do things differently, a sustained dialogue, the active search for compromise. The context obliges us, the war in Ukraine reminds us how fragile peace is”, she continued, also referring to “the ecological emergency which is becoming more present every second”. 

She added: “The French are asking us to talk more, to talk better, to build together.”

Among the challenges facing the government, Borne spoke of “environmental responsibility” and “improving the public accounts”. 

Here are the key points of her speech:

Cost of living

A bill to help French people with the cost of living and improve purchasing power will be the first major piece of government legislation put to the Assembly, on July 18th.

Borne, heckled by a febrile parliament, singled out the abolition of the TV licence, saying it would “save €138 per year for the French. Taxation will be one of our areas of debate, but it can be a subject of compromise.”

Pensions

On pensions, Borne said: “Our social model is a paradox: one of the most generous and one of those where we work the shortest. For the prosperity of our country and the sustainability of our pay-as-you-go system (…) we will have to gradually work a little longer”.

She promise to consult with social partners on pension reform.

Energy

Elisabeth Borne confirms the government’s intention to hold “100 percent of the capital of EDF” – effectively announcing the re-nationalisation of the energy supplier. “We must ensure our sovereignty in the face of the consequences of the war in Ukraine,” she said.

The State already owns about 80 percent of the business.

“This evolution will permit EDF to reinforce its capacities to carry out in the shortest possible time its ambitious and indispensable projects for our future energy” supplies, she added.

Shares in EDF jumped more than five percent higher, having traded down five percent before the prime minister’s speech.

Environment

“As of September, we will launch a vast consultation with a view to an energy-climate orientation law,” Borne said.

The “ecological emergency” is one of the government’s biggest upcoming challenges, she said.

“We will undertake radical transformations in our way of producing, housing, moving, consuming.”

“We will be the first major ecological nation to get out of fossil fuels,” the Prime Minister said, indicating that the government was putting nuclear energy at the heart of its green policy. “It is the guarantee of our energy sovereignty, the preservation of our purchasing power.”

She added that it would also create jobs.

Employment

Borne welcomed France’s improving employment figures, highlighting the success of apprenticeships, training for job seekers and the Un jeune, une Solution scheme. “Our country can get out of the vicious circle of mass unemployment,” she said.

Borne insisted that “full employment and good employment” is “not an illusion, not an unattainable goal” – but is “within our reach”.

Combatting ‘Séparatisme’

The prime minister also prioritised security in her speech, promising that “Separatism and Islamist extremism will be fought.”

As a result, Borne plans to present a bill for the creation of 200 additional gendarmerie brigades throughout the country. She also called for faster court decisions and for victims to be listened to. 

Education

Borne promised to improve teacher salaries, as she pledged “priority action” for schools and young people, and also said the government would continue developing the universal service scheme introduced by Emmanuel Macron during his first term in office.

“During our discussions, I saw another common desire emerge: to build the Republic of equal opportunities”, continues Elisabeth Borne. She assures that President Macron wants to “break the inequalities of destiny to allow everyone to choose their future, to trace the paths of emancipation”.

National debt

Borne set out an objective of reducing France’s national debt by 2026, and bringing the deficit below 3% from 2027.

Housing 

Borne said the question of housing is a major concern for French people and announced that her government has decided to put a ceiling on rent increases, and will work to build new housing.

Inequality 

The prime minister also announced plans to reduce inequality by offering single-parent households with childcare assistance for children up to age 12. Borne also pledged to simplify the student grant system, extend the culture pass from 6ème (age 11-12), and provide 30 minutes of sport for primary school students.

The PM also discussed potential reforms to disability benefits, which are currently partially dependent on spousal earnings.

At the end of a speech that lasted 90 minutes, Borne said that she wanted “to write a new page in the political history” of France. “I pledge never to break the thread of dialogue, to build ambitious compromises. The French have called for responsibility, and we will be there. We all have a part to play, we have everything to succeed. Building together, we will succeed.”

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