France’s peculiar political system
One of the peculiarities of the French political system which is similar to some of the peculiarities of the Russian political system, is that rather than overseeing a US style congress, the directly elected French President oversees a National Assembly that is more similar to a traditional parliamentary system in terms of its composition and procedure, while paradoxically being similar to an American style congress in terms of its relationship with the powerful (as opposed to ceremonial) President.
While the Fourth French Republic was a relatively strong parliamentary system, since 1958 when Charles de Gaulle ushered in a new constitution, France has operated as a hybrid-strong presidential system. Because of this, motions of no confidence against the government in the National Assembly (the French lower house of parliament) do not effect the President’s position in a direct manner. In fact, because the National Assembly and the President are elected separately, it is sometimes the case that majority faction in the National Assembly is from a different party to that of the President. That being said, like in a traditional parliamentary system, after a vote of no confidence either opposition factions can attempt to form a new governing coalition (or a minority government) or otherwise the President can act to dissolve the Assembly and call for new elections.
Crucially, like in Russia’s hybrid presidential system, the individual selected to preside over the National Assembly as Prime Minister needn’t be an elected member of the Assembly, although typically the French Prime Minister is. This contrasts sharply with traditional parliamentary systems where the Prime Minister attains his or her position due to leading the largest single party or coalition in a popularly elected parliamentary chamber.
The French Fifth Republic has only ever experienced one vote of no confidence
While votes of no confidence are a relatively common practice in traditional parliamentary systems, in France’s hybrid system, the process was only ever invoked once prior to this week. In 1962, the government of then Prime Minister and future President Georges Pompidou was subject to a no confidence vote when every party opposed to Pompidou’s Gaullist UNR party voted against the government after opposition parties invoked article 49.2 of the French constitution which defines the procedure for no confidence votes in the French National Assembly. Of note is the fact that in 1962 Pompidou was the French Prime Minister in spite of the fact that he was not an elected member of the National Assembly – he was instead appointed independently of the Assembly by the President in much the same way that Russia’s Prime Minister is appointed under the post-1993 Russian Constitution. This is a rare occurrence in France, an inversely typical occurrence in Russia but an impossible occurrence in fully-fledged parliamentary systems.
After his supporters in the National Assembly badly lost the vote of no confidence in 1962, De Gaulle dissolved the Assembly and new elections were held in which Pompidou’s Gaullist UNR won a plurality of votes.
This week’s vote
In the current National Assembly, parties loyal to President Emmanual Macron have a comfortable majority and hence the leftist parties (and potentially also the lone right wing party National Front) will not have enough votes to bring down the current government which remains united against the no confidence measure. Therefore, the vote in the current French National Assembly will largely be symbolic but in any case, it could not bring down the French President. It could at best force the majority party and Prime Minister out of office as was the case the only other time it was tried in 1962, even though the resulting election returned Pompidou’s Gaullist UNR back to power, which itself proved that the entire process amounted to much ado about little.
Not only is this the case, but the last time France experienced such prolonged street agitations, the President remained in power while in a legislative election in 1968, the Gaullist UNR still under the leadership of Pompidou won a super-majority.
Straightforward parliamentary systems are far more accountable
While President Macon is the unwilling face of this week’s no confidence vote and indeed the proximate cause of the vote, his office of the Presidency will not be effected by the vote except in symbolic terms. By contrast, if Macon was the Prime Minister in a full parliamentary system, the vote would damage his party’s authority even if he had won the vote. Just yesterday, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May was subjected to a no-confidence vote, not from the UK’s House of Commons (the main house of Parliament) but from her party. While she won the vote, she did not win by a margin that many think was sufficiently convincing. This makes the prospect of a full Parliamentary vote of no confidence all the more likely against the British Prime Minister. Beyond this, May’s authority as someone directly accountable to both Parliament and her party has been badly damaged – far more than a President like Macron could see his party damaged by the French Assembly’s vote.
There are no benefits to a French style split-executive in an age where politics ought to be efficient and as directly accountable to the public as possible. This is why for countries like The Philippines looking to change their Presidential style political system, the French model is nothing to envy in any sense.