If there is one word to describe the French political system, particularly the executive branch, it is “evolving”. Since the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the French have adopted (and subsequently abandoned) four different Constitutions. The role of the Executive has changed significantly with each new republic. Today, in the Fifth Republic, established in 1958, the two highest powers are the President and the Prime Minister. In many ways, the French system can be seen as somewhere between the American and British systems. The Third and Fourth Republics were much more parliamentary in their structure. Today, the President of France holds a very large amount of centralized power. The position of President is very easily the most powerful political office in France and in most ways, the Executive branch is the most powerful branch of the French system (unlike the United States where the majority of the power is meant to lie with Congress). The President has the power to appoint his cabinet as well as the Prime Minister. He can dissolve the National Assembly (one of the two legislative bodies), appoint judges to the national courts, conduct foreign affairs on behalf of the state, and call for constitutional referenda. The President lives at Elysée Palace in the 8th Arrondissement.
However, the President cannot unilaterally make domestic decisions. He must acquire the approval of the Prime Minister as well. The President is not permitted to personally go in front of the National Assembly nor the Senate. The reasoning is that keeping the Executive from the Legislature ensures that they will remain separate and will help maintain checks and balances. The Presidential term used to be seven years but was decreased to five years under Jacques Chirac so that the term length matched those of elected representatives of the National Assembly and Senate. There is a two term limit for the post of President.
The President is elected directly by the citizens of France. Anyone can be a candidate in the Presidential election as long as the person can receive 500 signatures of elected officials (these officials include mayors, cabinet positions, members of municipal governments, and European Union representatives among others. In the first round of the election process, all of the candidates are in the race. This takes place in April and always on Sunday. If a candidate receives a majority, or 50 percent of the vote, he or she has been officially elected to the post. However, this has never happened since the creation of the Fifth Republic. The two candidates that gain the highest percentage of the vote during the first round are automatically entered into a runoff round (the second round of elections) which takes place exactly two weeks later.