The 3 reasons that French presidents leave office early

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
The 3 reasons that French presidents leave office early
A Yellow Vest protester writes the words "Macron, resignation, long live France" during a demonstration in on March 2019 (Photo by Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron has ruled out resigning, whatever the result of snap elections he has called for later this month - so what are the circumstances when a French president's term might come to a premature end?


Macron has called snap parliamentary elections for the end of June, in an attempt to counter the rise of the far-right. The elections don't directly affect the office of president since in France presidents and parliament are elected separately.

Although a loss for his party in parliament would be humiliating for Macron, he says he will not resign, telling Le Figaro: "The institutions are clear, the place of the president is clear, and it is also clear whatever the result."

Listen to the Talking France team discuss the snap elections mean for France, for Macron himself and for foreigners living here in our latest podcast episode.

But do French presidents ever leave office early?

Under the constitution of the Fifth Republic there are three official ways that a presidency can end early, and two of those have happened since 1958.

The three routes are; resigning, dying in office or being impeached.



This one is pretty clear cut - a presidency obviously comes to an end if the president dies in office. This has happened once during the Fifth Republic, in 1974 Georges Pompidou died of cancer mid-way through his presidential term.

Further back in France's history president Félix Faure also died in office. His sudden death reportedly occurred when he was in flagrante with his mistress.

In the case of the death of the president, the leader of the Senate takes over as interim president until fresh elections can be arranged - in 1974 this was Alain Poher who served as temporary president until the election of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing a month later.

The President of the Senate takes this role because it is possible to dissolve the Assemblée Nationale, but not the senate. As such, the continuity of the presidential office is ensured.

However, the President of the Senate does not have all presidential powers. For example, they would not have the ability to submit a bill for a referendum, dissolve the Assemblée Nationale, or propose changes to the constitution.


The president also has a choice to submit their resignation, whether that is for personal or political reasons.

Again this has only happened once during the Fifth Republic - in 1969, French President Charles de Gaulle resigned following a failed referendum he had initiated. 

De Gaulle's presidency reached crisis point during the mass strikes and protests of May 1968 and he even briefly left the country, worried for his personal safety. However the general fought back and convincingly won elections later in 1968.

The following year, however, he resigned following the loss of a referendum on the less-than-enthralling subject of proposed reform of the Senate and local government.


As with the death of the president in office, if the president resigns then the president of the Senate steps up as an interim - in 1969 this was again Alain Pohler.


The third scenario where a president may leave office before the end of their term would be impeachment - destitution in French.

This is a relatively new invention in France, as it was first added to the constitution in 2007, in the form of article 68 - and has, so far, never happened.

Impeachment can be triggered "in the event of failure [of the head of state] to fulfil his duties manifestly incompatible with the exercise of his mandate". For example, this may be a refusal to sign laws, according to French media Ça m'interesse.

According to the French government site Vie Publique, the breach of duty may be political, but it may also be the private behaviour of the president, if his/her actions "have undermined the dignity of his office."

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How does the French Senate work?

The dismissal procedure can be triggered without any criminal offence. The procedure must be proposed by at least 10 percent of the Assemblée or the Senate - meaning at least 58 députés or 35 senators. 

Then the impeachment is voted on by secret ballot, with the two chambers serving as the High Court. In order to be accepted, there must be a minimum of a two-thirds majority reached in each chamber. 

During the duration of the procedure, the president would continue in office.

No French president has been impeached during the Fifth Republic, but in October 2016 the Les Républicains party attempted it against then-President François Hollande, accusing him of divulging national security secrets to two journalists who were writing a book about him. The vote was easily defeated. 

There is a separate procedure from impeachment - it is called l’empêchement and it is outlined in Article 7 of the French constitution - which is intended to be used if a president becomes mentally unable to govern.

In this case, a president can be prevented from exercising her or her mandate, but it would be up to the Constitutional Council to determine whether their mental or cognitive faculties are impaired.


Similar to death or resignation, it would be the President of the Senate who steps in while the president is incapacitated.

Military coup

It's not an official way to end a presidency, but of France's five (so far) republics, most have ended violently due to wars, invasion or military intervention.

This hasn't happened during the Fifth Republic but it came close in 1961 - right-wing and military figures, furious at the French colony of Algeria being given independence by president Charles de Gaulle plotted the violent overthrow of his regime. Their plan was defeated and De Gaulle remained in office.

Since 1961 things have been a little calmer on the military coup front, but France is a country of endless surprises . . .



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