Westminster Model vs. Semi-Presidentialism:
How Effective is the French Government As a Modern Democracy?
(Written for Professor Kathleen Bruhn's Political Science 6 class during fall quarter in my freshman year of college)
France and Britain are part of the few countries that come under the category of "industrialised democracies," but while Britain has a parliamentary system, France has a semi-presidential government, and both vary greatly in the division of power and the methods with which policies are implemented. Though traditional, Britain's governmental structure has remained the same with incremental changes over the years while France has gone through a violent revolution and multiple changes in the structure of their republic, the most recent system having been implemented within the last 50 years. Despite France's government having finally stabilised, Britain's Westminster model of parliamentarism is preferable to the French model of semi-presidentialism as the Westminster model honours tradition but is flexible enough to allow necessary change. While Britain's government and its development are based on pragmatism, the French have gone through many constitutions and is now on their Fifth Republic. Britain has a very clear-cut parliamentary system; the general electorate votes in the party that chooses the head of government, the prime minister, and the existing monarch serves as head of state to ideologically unite the nation across party lines (Mayer 106). France, however, has a semi-presidential system in which the role of the president is ill defined and an arbitrarily created position to satisfy the need for a monarch-like figure; the president appoints the prime minister that Parliament chooses, but the prime minister holds more power in government, and the prime minister and the president can come from opposing parties, depending on the vote, which can either serve to represent the whole spectrum of French opinion or sharply divide the government. Moreover, in France the prime minister resides over and is elected by Parliament, usually when he is the head of the largest party in Parliament, even if he does not hold a seat. Special interest groups in Britain are better represented, as there is no stigma against members of parliament speaking out for an interest group. Though the members are loyal to the party and tend to vote along party lines (under threat of being dismissed) instead of by personal choice, parties are often linked to organisations and labour unions, and gaining support through these organisations, interest groups have no need to push causes with specific members of parliament. This helps to ensure that individual members of parliament can get their job done without being distracted by the need to get support and boost their reputations. In France a bureaucracy enacts the policies under instruction of the authority. Though the bureaucracy consists of a highly selective "elite," their specialised tasks distance them from the needs of the people and the understanding of the overall social structure. They also serve as a buffer between the people and the authority figures so that the authority cannot hear the voice of the people, and the people feel no connection to the enacted policies. There is hardly any representation. The development of the parliamentary system has earned it respect from the British people, but the French distrust government. The many changes to the French constitution have resulted in weak support for the current version and low understanding of the constitution. The distance between the people and the authorities causes a need for protests and a repeated tearing down of ineffective systems in order to initiate change. This constant destruction and rebuilding has meant that the people have had little time to develop understanding and appreciation for the current governmental system. The majority of the people do not feel represented and feel no need to participate, and lower classes can especially be disinterested in the expert ideological goals of the government through the bureaucracy (144-145) when the goals will not make any difference in their lives. Britain runs on the model of "responsible party government." Most members of parliament do not cross party lines or disagree with the prime minister when voting on issues, but as the voting population votes for a party, not a candidate, the views within the party tend to be uniform. The prime minister can call elections in popular times to increase membership or wait until his five-year term is over for the scheduled election; his power is stable, but this also means that he must take full responsibility for his actions and cannot blame ineffective policies on opposing parties or amendments due to partisan disagreements as his party is the majority party in Parliament. He is also "chosen by and accountable to the representative assembly" (106), so Parliament can check the prime minister by a vote of no confidence if they disagree with the prime minister's actions. If the prime minister loses the vote, he must call elections. Party-based elections can cause a problem if voters do not agree completely with the platform of any one party, but this also makes it easier for them to vote because there are fewer elections, the system requires the parties' platforms to be clear, and voters are not required to have extensive knowledge about every issue. The French president and Assembly check each other. The French president has the power to dissolve the Assembly once a year, but he must realise that it is dangerous to use this method if the public likes the Assembly; in the same way, knowing that the president can dissolve them, the Assembly will hesitate before going against a popular president (150). The President also has the power to bypass the Assembly by proposing a referendum straight to the people. The drawback to this, however, is that if the people do not support the referendum, he must resign. Though resignation is not required by the constitution, it has become part of tradition. The French system contains checks for its branches, but unlike the British system, the weight of responsibility is not so clear except in the case of a referendum. Unlike the British system, there is also not one member of government and one party that holds absolute power for a period of time, but this means that there is less unity within the government, and the positions of various politicians are not always apparent, and the people do not know whom to hold accountable. This is made worse by a constitution that states things loosely. Most people do not know the boundaries of the constitution; it is not as highly emphasised, but in this way wrongdoings cannot be clearly defined as "unconstitutional." The French bureaucracy puts policies into effect but holds no responsibility as they are not involved in the decision-making process, and the authorities "are protected from personal pressures and reactions by those to whom the decisions apply" (143). The system both reduces the responsibility of the government and makes it that they are inaccessible. In addition, the bureaucrats cannot be blamed for the overall failure of the government because they may have performed their tasks perfectly and simply cannot see the overall effects of government from their focused areas. What the system lacks is unity and coordination. The greatest advantage of the Westminster model is its flexibility. British pragmatism contrasts with what Herbert Spiro calls the French "ideologism" (qtd. in Mayer 141) in that the British are willing and can easily modify their system according to need; on the other hand, French government and politics, often built on untested political ideas, fails when the ideologies fail. The largely abstract focus of French political theory pushes goals that may once have been relevant to the people but are no longer of interest to them. In Britain the progressive pragmatism is a result of building upon a base of early industrialisation. Though there is a strong adherence to tradition and deference for political leaders and the system, the British change what is necessary to be efficient, as demonstrated when Prime Minister Tony Blair shifted the Labour Party to moderate from its strong left position and rearranged the House of Lords. British government is effective because it can affect the people and generate participation and reactions. In France the constantly changing and protesting attitude comes from the inequality created by government's effort to speed up the late industrialisation process. The abrupt changes create instability even if the changes implemented are in the best interests of the people. A society cannot adjust quickly, and despite modernisation the society has not lost the traditional attitude: authority as a voice separate from the people and speaking to the people instead of for them. The original bureaucracy was an invention of Louis XIV; that methods have not changed shows that the society has not progressed to a true democracy. Low government involvement in the people's lives may result in more freedom for the people and fewer social problems, but this government is not effective if "effective" means that the government sees the changes in the people's lives that they had intended to create. If the government is there to run the country for the people, but the policies have little effect on the society, the methods are inefficient and just wasted energy. Britain's parliamentary system has the advantage of a long history of trial and error on its side while France's Fifth Republic is a child at only 50 years old. If the French do not mind that their government does not play much of a role in their lives, no change is needed, but over time all societies develop and adjust to the needs of their time.
Mayer, Lawrence C. Comparative Politics: Nations and Theories in a Changing World.. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.