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France's political institutions have undergone several changes since the 1789 revolution. The present constitution, adopted in 1958 and revised in 1962, established the Fifth Republic and provided for a powerful president, originally Charles DE GAULLE, and a bicameral legislature with less power than it had in the past. The president is elected by direct popular vote for a 7-year term. He appoints the prime minister and may dissolve the National Assembly.

The legislature consists of a 318-member Senate elected indirectly by an electoral college, and a politically more important 577-member, directly elected National Assembly. The five overseas departments of French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion, and St. Pierre and Miquelon are represented in the National Assembly, as are New Caledonia, Mayotte, Wallis and Futuna Islands, and French Polynesia. Senate members serve 9-year terms, with one-third of the seats falling due for election every three years. The National Assembly is elected every five years. The minimum voting age is 18 years.

The four leading French political parties are the Socialist party; the conservative Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), founded by Charles de Gaulle and now led by Jacques CHIRAC; the Union pour la Democratie Française (UDF); and the French Communist party. Francois MITTERRAND, leader of the Socialist party, was elected president in May 1981, giving the Fifth Republic its first socialist government. When a UDF-RPR coalition won a majority of seats in the parliamentary election of 1986, Mitterrand had to call on opposition leader Chirac to form a government, marking another first for the Fifth Republic--a "cohabitation" arrangement in which the president and the prime minister were of different parties. The Chirac government modified many of the socialist reforms introduced earlier by Mitterrand. When Mitterrand was elected to a second term in 1988, he was able to replace Chirac with a succession of Socialist premiers. A second period of cohabitation under Prime Minister Edouard BALLADUR began after a Socialist defeat at the polls in March 1993. Chirac won 52.6% of the vote in the presidential election of May 1995, winning a narrow victory over his Socialist opponent, Lionel Jospin.

Local administration of France is organized around 22 administrative regions and 96 metropolitan departments, and the Mitterrand government implemented (1982) a devolution plan, giving more authority to regions and departments. Each department covers about 5,000 sq km (1,930 sq mi) and is administered by an elected departmental council. Within the departments are about 36,000 communes, corresponding to the parishes of prerevolutionary France, which are small and are headed by elected mayors.

Daniel Noin; Reviewed by Anne Depigny and Agnes Jolivet.
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #6, ©1993.

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