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Cohabitation (government)

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Subject: François Mitterrand, Jacques Foccart, Prime minister, Head of government, Head of state
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Cohabitation (government)

Cohabitation in government occurs in semi-presidential systems, such as France's system, when the President is from a different political party than the majority of the members of parliament. It occurs because such a system forces the president to name a premier (prime minister) that will be acceptable to the majority party within parliament. Thus, cohabitation occurs because of the duality of the executive: an independently elected President and a prime minister who must be acceptable both to this president and to the legislature.



Cohabitation was a product of the French Fifth Republic, albeit an unintended one. This constitution brought together a president with potent executive powers and a prime minister, responsible before Parliament. The president's task was primarily to end deadlock and act decisively to avoid the stagnation prevalent under the French Fourth Republic; the prime minister, similarly, was to "direct the work of government", providing a strong leadership to the legislative branch and to help overcome partisan squabbles.

Since 1962, French presidents have been elected by popular vote, replacing the electoral college, which was only used once. This change was intended to give Fifth Republic presidents more power than they might have had under the original constitution. While still seen as the symbol and embodiment of the nation, the president also was given a popular mandate. Of course, the majority party of the National Assembly retained power as well, but since the popularly-elected president appointed the prime minister, the former was seen as having the upper hand in any conflict between executive and legislature. Furthermore, the imbalance is further illustrated by the fact that the president can dissolve the Assembly at any time (but not more than once in a year), whereas the legislature has no powers of removal against the president.

The sole caveat to this position of presidential pre-eminence was the fact that the president's selection to the premiership required approval by the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament: because the Assembly can dismiss the government by a vote of no confidence, it follows that the prime minister must command a majority in the Assembly. This was not a problem whilst the legislative majority was aligned with the president, and indeed, de Gaulle, who was responsible for inspiring much of the Constitution, envisioned that the president will resign if the people disavow him in an Assembly election, and will then elect a new president (there is no vice-president in France and a new election takes places less than two months after a resignation, a new president being elected for a new, full term ; that happened in 1969, when de Gaulle resigned because the people voted against a referendum proposed by him).

The first "near miss" with cohabitation occurred with the election of Socialist President François Mitterrand in 1981. A right-wing coalition headed by the Gaullist Rally for the Republic controlled the Assembly at the time. Almost immediately, Mitterrand exercised his authority to call Assembly elections, and the electorate returned an Assembly with an absolute majority of Socialists, ending the presumed crisis.

However, when Assembly elections were held as required in 1986, five years later, the Socialists lost their majority to the right. Mitterrand decided to remain president, beginning the first cohabitation.

Cohabitation in practice

There have been only three periods of cohabitation, but each is notable for illustrating the oscillation of powers between the President and Prime Minister.

Mitterrand-Chirac Period (1986-1988)

After the 1986 Assembly elections, Mitterrand was forced to nominate as a Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, the leader of the RPR, the largest party in the majority coalition. Throughout the cohabitation between Mitterrand and Chirac, the President focused on his foreign duties and allowed Chirac to control internal affairs. Since Mitterrand was distanced from these policies, Chirac began to reverse many of Mitterrand’s reforms by lowering taxes and privatising many national enterprises. There were however tense moments, such as when Mitterrand refused to sign ordonnances, slowing down reforms by requiring Chirac to pass his bills through Parliament.[1] This lasted for 2 years until 1988 when the newly reelected Mitterrand called for new legislative elections that were won by a leftist majority, which lasted five years.

Mitterrand-Balladur Period (1993-1995)

In 1993 President Mitterrand found himself in a similar position when the Right won an 80% majority in the National Assembly elections. Once again he was forced to appoint an opposition member (RPR and UDF parties), this time Édouard Balladur, to the post of Prime Minister, because Chirac focused rather on running for President instead of being Prime Minister for the third time. Balladur maintained this post through the cohabitation until May 18, 1995 when Jacques Chirac was elected president.

Chirac-Jospin Period (1997-2002)

In 1995, rightist leader Jacques Chirac succeeded Mitterrand as President and since the right had a majority in the Assembly, he was able to appoint his fellow RPR member Alain Juppé as his Prime Minister, ending cohabitation by a change in the presidency. This alignment of President and Assembly should have lasted until at least the normally-scheduled 1998 Assembly elections.

However, in 1997, President Chirac made the ill-fated strategic decision to dissolve parliament and call for early legislative elections. This plan backfired when the French electorate turned back to the leftists and removed the right-wing Assembly majority. Chirac was forced to appoint Socialist Lionel Jospin to the premiership. Jospin remained Prime Minister until the elections of 2002, making this third term of cohabitation the longest ever—five years. Chirac called this a state of ‘Paralysis’, and found it particularly difficult to arrange campaign activities for the National Assembly.

With Jospin holding the premiership, Chirac’s political influence was constrained and he had no say over certain major reforms being instituted by the left-wing majority. This included the 1998 legislation to shorten the working week from 39 to 35 hours, which came into effect in 2000.


  • Some scholars contend that French Fifth Republic usually operates under a presidential system, but when in cohabitation, this effectively changes, at least in terms of domestic policy, to a parliamentary system, in which the prime minister controls the legislative agenda and the president's powers are limited to foreign policy and defence.
  • A common problem during cohabitation is that each leader wants his or her own policies to be carried out so that the public is positive toward their strategies and will be elected when the time comes. Because each party is in competition, there is little room for progression since the friction between both sides holds each other back. Whilst leaders of the same political spectrum help each other in decision-making when in power simultaneously, cohabitation can lead to a decline in national authority and make the country appear outwardly insecure.
  • Although originally believed to be improbable, France was governed under a cohabitation of leaders for almost half the period from 1986-2006, suggesting that French people no longer fear the prospect of having two parties share power.

Future prospects

In 2000, with the support of President Chirac, the term of the President of the Fifth Republic was shortened from seven years to five years, a change accepted by a referendum. Furthermore, legislative elections are now held one month after presidential ones, thus creating a "winner dynamic" that encourages those who won the presidential election to confirm their vote one month later during legislative elections. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said that the presidential election now has four turns. Unless French voters exercise "ticket splitting", cohabitation should not occur unless a President feels compelled to call for Assembly elections mid-term, a prospect which cannot be ruled out, but unlikely.

It can also, theoretically, occur if the President dies, resign, is impeached or declared ill during his term, but in such case the new president is likely to call immediately Assembly elections (as did Mitterrand in 1981 and 1988) at least if the newly elected president is from a different party than the precedent assembly.


The 2012 Romanian political crisis was a major political conflict between prime minister Victor Ponta of the Social Democratic Party and the center-right president Traian Băsescu, after the former was asked to form a government in May 2012. The dispute degenerated in civil disobedience and alleged democratic backsliding,[2] lasting until the two sides signed an agreement on institutional cohabitation in December.


The constitution of Finland, as written after independence, was originally similar to the French system. It included explicit provisions that the President focuses on national security and international relations. The arrangement was a compromise between monarchists and parliamentarists. In essence, a strong presidency was adopted instead of a constitutional monarchy. The new constitution of 2000 reduced the power of the President by transferring the power to choose a Prime Minister to the parliament. Cohabitation has occurred frequently, as Finland has multiple powerful parties which are not highly polarized between left and right, and also since the terms of a parliament are shorter (four years) than the presidential terms (six years). Theoretically, the President should remain strictly nonpartisan, and Presidents have usually formally renounced party membership while in office.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan politics for several years witnessed a bitter struggle between the president and the prime minister, belonging to different parties and elected separately, over the negotiations with the Tamil Tigers to resolve the longstanding civil war. Since 2004, the president has more political power.


A cohabitation in a semi-presidential system also existed in Ukraine between 2006 and 2010. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had to appoint Viktor Yanukovych, his rival from the 2004 presidential election, as Prime Minister in August 2006.

Palestinian National Authority

The Palestinian territories, has operated within the framework of a semi-presidential republic since the creation of the office of Prime Minister in the spring of 2003. While the President has the power to appoint anyone Prime Minister, there was an unspoken agreement upon the establishment of the office that the Prime Minister would be appointed from the majority party in the Legislative Council. This arrangement led to a period of cohabitation after the 2006 legislative election, in which Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas appointed Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh Prime Minister after Hamas' victory in the elections. The cohabitation did not last long, however, as funds were withheld from the Palestinian Authority and hostilities between Fatah and Hamas broke out in December 2006, leading to the appointment of a caretaker government led by Salam Fayyad on June 14, 2007.

Other countries

Cohabitation does not occur within standard presidential systems. While a number of presidential democracies, such as the United States, have seen power shared between a president and legislature of different political parties, this situation (known as "divided government") is distinct from cohabitation. In a situation of divided government, the executive is directed by a president of one party while the legislature is controlled by another party; in cohabitation, by contrast, executive power is divided between a president of one party and a cabinet of government ministers of another party. Cohabitation thus only occurs in systems that have both parliamentary government (i.e. ministers accountable to parliament) and a directly-elected executive president, i.e. semi-presidential systems.

The theory of cohabitation is not limited to France, but there are not many countries where the constitutional structure exists in which it could occur. However, many of the new democracies of eastern Europe have adopted institutions quite similar to France, and cohabitation may become more common. Still, if those countries elect their executives and legislature at the same time, as France is now starting to do, then cohabitation will be less likely.

See U.S. presidents and control of Congress.

See also

Further reading

  • Raymond, G (2000) The President: Still a ‘Republican Monarch’? in Raymond, G (ed) Structures of Power in Modern France, Macmillan Press, Basingstoke
  • Sartori, G (1997) Comparative Constitutional Engineering, 2nd Ed., Macmillan Press, Basingstoke
  • Elgie, R (2003) Political Institutions in Contemporary France, OUP, Oxford
  • Knapp, A and Wright, V (2001) The Government and Politics of France, 4th Ed., Routledge, London
  • Marrani, D (2009), ‘Semi- Presidentialism à la française: the Recent Constitutional Evolution of the “Two-Headed” Executive’, Constitutional FORUM constitutionnel, vol. 18, no. 2, 2009, available at:
  • Cohendet, M. (2005) ‘The French Cohabitation, A Useful Experiment?’ CEFC:China
  • People’s Daily Online, (2002), France Bids Farewell to Right-Left 'Cohabitation’, Monday, June 17, 2002 (Last accessed 16 February 2006).
  • Shiloh, T. (2002) Muted reaction as France heads right, Monday, June 10, 2002 (Last accessed 15 February 2006).


  1. ^ Jean V. Poulard, The French Double Executive and the Experience of Cohabitation, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 105, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 243-267
  2. ^ "Germany, U.S: Romania power struggle hurts democracy", Reuters
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