Under the constitution of the Fifth Republic (1958), as subsequently amended, the president of the republic is elected for a five-year term (changed from a seven-year term following a referendum on 24 September 2000) by direct universal suffrage. If no candidate receives an absolute majority of the votes cast, a runoff election is held between the two candidates having received the most votes. If the presidency falls vacant, the president of the Senate assumes the office until a new election can be held within 20–35 days. The president appoints the prime minister and, on the prime minister's recommendation, the other members of the cabinet. The president has the power to dissolve the National Assembly, in which event new elections must be held in 20–40 days. When the national sovereignty is gravely menaced, the president is empowered to take special measures after consultation with the premier and other appropriate officials. The National Assembly, however, may not be dissolved during the exercise of exceptional powers. The president promulgates laws approved by the legislature, has the right of pardon, and is commander of the armed forces.
The bicameral parliament consists of two houses, the National Assembly and the Senate. Under a system enacted in 1986, the National Assembly is composed of 577 deputies, each representing an electoral district. If no candidate receives a clear majority, there is a runoff among those receiving at least 12.5% of the vote; a plurality then suffices for election. All citizens aged 18 or over are eligible to vote.
The deputies' term of office, unless the Assembly is dissolved, is five years. The Senate consisted, as of September 1986, of 321 members indirectly elected to nine-year terms, one-third being chosen every three years. Of the total, 296 represented metropolitan France, 13, overseas departments and territories, and 12, French citizens residing abroad; all are chosen by electoral colleges. In addition, European elections are held to choose 87 French deputies out of 626 in the European Parliament every five years, with proportional representation.
To become law, a measure must be passed by parliament. Parliament also has the right to develop in detail and amplify the list of matters on which it may legislate by passing an organic law to that effect. Regular parliamentary sessions occur once a year, lasting nine months each (amended in 1995 from two shorter sessions a year). A special session may be called by the prime minister or at the request of a majority of the National Assembly. Bills, which may be initiated by the executive, are introduced in either house, except finance bills, which must be introduced in the Assembly. These proceedings are open to the public, aired on television, and reported.
The prime minister and the cabinet formulate national policy and execute the laws. No one may serve concurrently as a member of parliament and a member of the executive. Under certain circumstances, an absolute majority in the National Assembly may force the executive to resign by voting a motion of censure. Under the new law of 1993, members of the government are liable for actions performed in office deemed to be crimes or misdemeanors, and tried by the Court of Justice.