What’s the Difference Between France’s President and Prime Minister?

Jean-Marie Le Pen edged out Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the qualifying round of France’s presidential election. What’s the difference between France’s president and prime minister?

The president is directly elected by the French people every five years. The French Constitution declares him head of state and gives him control over foreign policy and defense.

After parliamentary elections—held every five years, or sooner if the president calls them—the president appoints a prime minister. The appointment requires the approval of Parliament, so the PM almost always comes from the party that controls the chamber. The prime minister serves as head of government and is in charge of domestic policy and day-to-day governing. He also recommends for presidential approval the other members of hisCabinet.

Cohabitation, in which the president has had to share power with a prime minister of a different party, has occurred three times since 1986. President Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist, dissolved Parliament in 1997, hoping to elect a majority of his own party. But he miscalculated. The Socialists won the majority of the seats in the new Parliament, and Chirac had to accept the Socialist Jospin as prime minister.

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Explainer thanks Charles Maier and Cindy Skach of Harvard University and Michael Gorges and Tom Schaller of University of Maryland, Baltimore County.