France - Political background

France was one of the first nation-states and during the reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715) was the dominant European power. Financial over-extension coupled with popular resentment of the privileged classes led to the French Revolution (1789–94). Despite advocacy of the ideals of republicanism and egalitarianism, the country reverted to monarchy, or absolute rule, four times: during the Empire of Napoleon, the Restoration of Louis XVIII, the reign of Louis-Philippe, and the Second Empire of Napoleon III. In 1870, at the close of the Franco-Prussian War, the Second Republic was established; it lasted until the military defeat of 1940. In July 1940, on the heels of the German invasion and occupation of France, the Third Republic was installed. Known as the Vichy Government, the leaders openly collaborated with the Nazis in the hope of maintaining some resemblance of French sovereignty. Liberated in 1944, France was briefly governed by a provisional government led by General Charles de Gaulle, who oversaw the creation of the Fourth Republic and the drafting and promulgation of a new constitution. The Fourth Republic was beset with successive cabinet crises and changes of government, primarily over the divisive issues of French colonial policy in Indochina and Algeria. In May 1958, the government collapsed under the weight of the Algerian conflict, and de Gaulle was called upon to head a new government in order to avert civil war. De Gaulle became prime minister in June 1958. The Fifth Republic was constitutionally established in September 1958, and de Gaulle was elected president in December of that year. Since de Gaulle's tenure ended in 1969, France has elected as president Georges Pompidou (Gaullist, 1969–74); Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (Independent Republican, 1974–81); François Mitterand (Socialist, 1981–95); and Jacques Chirac (1995–present).

Under the 1958 Constitution, executive power in France is held by the president, who, from 1962–2000 was elected by direct popular vote for a seven-year term. A referendum held on 24 September 2000 changed the presidential term of office to five years. Elections are provisionally structured in two rounds to provide a run-off if no candidate wins an outright majority in the first ballot. The president appoints a cabinet of varying numbers, headed by the prime minister, whom he also appoints. The president may submit questions to a national referendum and has the power to dissolve the National Assembly. Parliament is composed of the 577-member National Assembly, the members of which are directly elected every five years, and the Senate, one-third of whose 321 members are chosen every three years by an electoral college to serve nine-year terms. Legislative power lies with the National Assembly. Suffrage is universal, but non-compulsory at age 18.

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