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What does a French Prime Minister actually do?

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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 of the time in French politics the focus is on the president - but a snap election has thrown the spotlight onto the job of prime minister. Here's a look at what a French PM does, and how much power they have compared to a president.


In many countries the prime minister is the ruler - in France, however, the system is very different.

Snap elections

In what is perhaps a world first, 'Article 16 of the constitution' was trending on French Twitter on Wednesday. The article in question is the one that details the power of a president as opposed to the parliament and prime minister. And the reason for the current interest is the snap parliamentary elections that have thrown the role of PM into the spotlight.

French president Emmanuel Macron has dissolved parliament and called for snap legislative elections on June 30th and July 7th - the vote doesn't directly affect his own job, since he was re-elected in 2022 with a fixed term mandate until 2027.

Instead voters will be choosing members of parliament, and the make-up of the parliament will determine the legislative direction of the country in the years to come. And the leader of the parliament is the prime minister.

READ ALSO Who will be France's next prime minister

The role of prime minister

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 26 prime ministers (including two women), 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.


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.

As we mentioned, Article 16 of the constitution lays out the powers of a president - but over the years certain precedents and traditions have developed so the division of roles has become less clear cut.

In general, 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, which takes 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 first 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. 


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

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, this is a convention rather than a constitutional rule.

In order for presidents to be able to pass legislation it's important that they have a majority in the Assemblée nationale, so the PM is delegated to try and 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. Presidents cannot be tried here. 


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 they often are. 

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.


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.

If he can't create any kind of formal or informal coalition with other parties he then has a choice of either giving up on passing any legislation for the remainder of his term, or making 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 François 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.

France could be on course for another cohabitation depending on the outcome of those elections on June 30th/July 7th.

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 tenant), 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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