Cohabitation (government)

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 potent presidential position with manifold 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 of the Fifth Republic 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 be supported by 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, never envisioned that such a conflict could exist; to him the French public would never permit such a situation. But because the president was elected to seven-year terms, and the Assembly to five-year terms, it was almost inevitable that such a situation would someday arise. Political scientists regarded it as a flaw in the constitution that had the potential to bring down the Fifth Republic.

The first "near miss" with cohabitation occurred with the election of Socialist President François Mitterrand in 1981. A coalition of the right 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, five years later, the Socialists lost their majority to the right, precipitating the first experiment in 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 François 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 Jacques 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 majority in the National assembly was from his side, 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. Because of this, cohabitation will almost certainly be much more rare. 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. It can also occur if the President dies during his term.


The constitution of Finland as written after independence, was similar to the French system. It included explicit provisions that the President focuses on national security and international relations. The arrangement was originally a compromise between monarchists and parliamentarists: after the failure to institute a monarchy, a strong presidency was adopted. 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 and does not have such a deep split between the left and right, and as 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 LTTE to resolve the longstanding civil war.


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 National Authority, a quasi-governmental organization responsible for administering 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, cohabitation is not a characteristic of such countries. In the French-type system, each minister is responsible to the legislature, not to the president personally as in 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


  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

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