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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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IMMIGRATION

French police clear Channel migrant camps after violence leaves one dead

Police dismantled a camp housing hundreds of migrants near Dunkirk in northern France on Wednesday after one person was killed and three wounded in suspected score-settling between smugglers, authorities said.

French police clear Channel migrant camps after violence leaves one dead

Around 500 people, mainly Iraqi Kurds, had been living at the wooded site in Loon-Plage, near a canal that often serves as a key launching point for boats hoping to cross the English Channel for Britain.

Buses stood by to bring the migrants to shelters, but most left instead on foot, carrying what belongings they could.

On Monday night, one migrant was shot and killed and another wounded by what volunteer aid workers described as machine gun fire, the day after two others were also shot and wounded, one seriously.

Ammunition from “weapons of war” were found, Dunkirk’s state prosecutor Sebastian Pieve had told AFP on Tuesday, and a clash between rival smuggling groups was “a theory, but it’s not easy to establish”.

“But it’s certain that human trafficking is the backdrop to this,” he said.

Dawan, a 32-year-old Kurd, would say only “mafia, mafia” when asked by AFP about the shootings.

He said he had recently paid €1,600 to a smuggler who said he would get him to England after spending five months in France, but the man disappeared the next day.

Claire Millot of the Salam migrant aid group said most volunteer associations had quit operating at Loon-Plage out of security fears, adding that Africans and other nationalities had recently been seen in an area usually occupied mainly by Kurds.

More than 7,000 migrants have managed to cross the busy shipping lane and reach the British coast since January, after the number of arrivals tripled to over 28,000 last year — which saw at least 30 migrants die while trying.

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