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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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POLICE

France proposes getting rid of penalties for ‘minor’ speeding offences

The French government is considering changing speeding laws so that drivers will not lose points on their licence if they are caught going just a few kilometres over the speed limit.

France proposes getting rid of penalties for 'minor' speeding offences

France’s Interior Ministry is considering changing its current rules for minor speeding violations – proposing getting rid of the penalty for drivers who only violate the rule by going just a few kilometres over the speed limit.

The Ministry has not laid out a timeline for when this could come into effect, but they said they are currently in the preliminary stages of studying how the change could be carried out.

“The fine of course remains,” said the Interior Ministry to French daily Le Parisien.

That is to say you can still be fined for going five kilometres over the speed limit, but there might not be any more lost points for driving a couple kilometres over the posted limit. 

READ ALSO These are the offences that can cost you points on your driving licence

Of the 13 million speeding tickets issued each year in France, 58 percent are for speeding violations of less than 5 km per hour over the limit, with many coming from automated radar machines.

How does the current rule work?

The rule itself is already a bit flexible, depending on where the speeding violation occurs.

If the violation happens in an urban area or low-speed zone (under 50 km per hour limit), then it is considered a 4th class offence, which involves a fixed fine of €135. Drivers can also lose a point on their licences as a penalty for this offence. 

Whereas, on highways and high-speed roads, the consequences of speeding by 5 km per hour are less severe. The offence is only considered 3rd class, which means the fixed fine is €68. There is still the possibility of losing a point on your licence, however. 

How do people feel about this?

Pierre Chasseray, a representative from the organisation “40 Millions d’Automobilistes,” thinks the government should do away with all penalties for minor speeding offences, including fines. He told French daily Le Parisien that this is only a “first step.”

Meanwhile, others are concerned that the move to get rid of points-deductions could end up encouraging people to speed, as they’ll think there is no longer any consequence.

To avoid being accused of carelessness, France’s Interior Ministry is also promising to become “firmer” with regards to people who use other people’s licences in order to get out of losing points – say by sending their spouse’s or grandmother’s instead of their own after being caught speeding. The Interior Ministry plans to digitalise license and registration in an effort to combat this. 

Ultimately, if you are worried about running out of points on your licence, there are still ways to recover them.

You can recover your points after six months of driving without committing any other offences, and there are also awareness training courses that allow you to gain your points back. It should be noted, however, that these trainings typically cost between €150 and €250, and they do not allow you to regain more than four points.

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