Explained: What happens when French leaders are forced into 'cohabitation'?

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Explained: What happens when French leaders are forced into 'cohabitation'?
Former President François Mitterrand and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac during the first 'cohabitation' under the Fifth Republic. (Photo by AFP)

Whenever France faces decisive parliamentary elections, the question of a 'cohabitation' is raised - here's what this means (and no, it's not a presidential house-share).


After president Emmanuel Macron called snap parliamentary elections on Sunday night, people began to discuss the likelihood of a cohabitation.

This is a technical term when a president's party does not win enough seats in parliament to form an overall majority in parliament, but another party does. The winning party then offers the president a deal - they will form a government, he will appoint one of their senior members as prime minister and the two will govern in a (usually uneasy alliance).

While the prime minister can under these circumstances take charge of domestic policy, under France's constitution, the president has the power to set foreign and defence policy.

It doesn't mean that they live together - in French that would be 'colocation'.


This has happened three times in the post-war period;

1986-1988: Sparks fly

Five years after becoming the first left-wing president since World War II, leftwinger François Mitterrand is forced into an unhappy marriage with centre-right leader Jacques Chirac in 1986 after losing parliamentary elections.

Mitterrand takes it on the chin, declaring that Chirac is free to "determine and conduct the policy of the nation" as set out in the Constitution.

The pair are soon at each other's throats, with Chirac threatening to resign after Mitterrand refused to sign decrees on privatising public companies.


The government later transforms the decrees into a bill, which is adopted by parliament.

Months later the tensions between the ruling duo are again laid bare when Mitterrand declares he is "on the same page" as students protesting over higher education reforms.

Mitterrand emerges victorious from the power struggle, beating Chirac in 1988 to win a second seven-year term as president.

1993-1995 : Smoother second ride

Mitterrand has to bed down with the right for another two-year period in 1993 after the Socialists suffer another election drubbing.

This time he names Chirac's rival Edouard Balladur as prime minister.

The second cohabitation is less acrimonious than the first, not least because this time Mitterrand is not seeking re-election after the end of his two terms.

READ MORE: French Word of the Day: Cohabitation

The pair do lock horns at times, however, on issues ranging from nuclear testing to France's asylum laws.

As Mitterrand grows weaker due to a battle with prostate cancer, Balladur begins speaking out more on France's place in the world, annoying the president.

1997-2002: Chirac's gamble

In 1997, Jacques Chirac has been president for two years when the centre-right leader gambles big... and loses spectacularly.

He dissolves the National Assembly and calls elections a year early in the hope of increasing his parliamentary majority, but ends up haemorrhaging seats to the Socialists, who win back power under Lionel Jospin.

Chirac promises a "constructive cohabitation" while insisting that the constitution gives him "the last word", a claim disputed by Jospin.

The Socialists plough ahead with their ambitious reform agenda, introducing a 35-hour working week despite Chirac's objections, as well as universal health insurance.

Yet again, the cohabitation proves more beneficial for the president than the premier, with Chirac seeing off Jospin and far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to win a second term in 2002.



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