The Constitution has been modified several times since the start of the Fifth Republic, most recently in July 2008, when the French "Congress" (A joint con vention of the two chambers of Parliament) approved - by 1 vote over the 60% majority required - constitutional changes proposed by President Sarkozy.
The Fifth Republic: The fifth republic was established in 1958, and was largely the work of General de Gaulle - its first president, and Michel Debré his prime minister. It has been amended 17 times. Though the French constitution is parliamentary, it gave relatively extensive powers to the executive (President and Ministers) compared to other western democracies.
The executive branch:
The head of state and head of the executive is the President, elected by universal suffrage. Originally, a president of the Fifth Republic was elected for a 7-year term (le septennat), renewable any number of times.
Since 2002 the President has been elected for a 5-year term (le quinquennat). Since the passing of the 2008 Constitutional reform, the maximum number of terms a president can serve has been limited to two.
The President, who is also supreme commander of the military, determines policy with the aid of his Council of Ministers (Conseil des ministres). The residence of the President of the French Republic is the Elysée Palace (le palais de l'Elysée) in Paris.
The President appoints a prime minister (currently François Fillon) , who forms a government. The residence of the French Prime Minister is at Matignon House (l'Hôtel Matignon) in Paris.
In theory ministers are chosen by the PM; in practice unless the President and the PM are from different sides of the political spectrum (a system known as la cohabitation), PM and president work together to form a government. The President must approve the appointment of government ministers.
The cabinet, le Conseil des ministres, meets on a weekly basis, and is presided over by the president. Ministers determine policy and put new legislation before Parliament in the form of bills (projets de loi); within the framework of existing law, they apply policy through decrees (décrets).
The legislative branch:
The French parliament is made up of two houses or chambers. The lower and principal house of parliament is the Assemblée nationale, or national assembly; the second chamber is the Sénat or Senate. Members of Parliament, called Députés, are elected by universal suffrage, in general elections (élections législatives) that take place every five years.
Senators are elected by "grand electors", who are mostly other local elected representatives. The electoral system for parliamentary elections involves two rounds; a candidate can be elected on the first round by obtaining an absolute majority of votes cast. The second round is a runoff between two or more candidates, usually two..
The judicial branch:
While the Minister of Justice, le Garde des Sceaux, has powers over the running of the justice system and public prosecutors, the judiciary is strongly independent of the executive and legislative branches. The official handbook of French civil law is the Code Civil.
Promulgation of laws:
New bills (projets de loi), proposed by government, and new pivate members bills (propositions de loi) must be approved by both chambers, before becoming law.
However, by virtue of Article 49.3 of the French constitution, a government can override parliamentary opposition and pass a law without a parilimentary vote. This does not happen frequently, and in the framework of constitutional amendments, president Sarkozy has curtailed the possibility of using 49.3.
Laws and decrees are promulgated when the official text is published in the Official Journal of the French Republic, le Journal Officiel.
The Constitutional Council
The Constitutional Council , le Conseil constitutionnel, exists to determine the constitutionality of new legislation or decrees. It has powers to strike down a bill before it passes into law, if it is deemed unconstitutional, or to demand the withdrawal of decrees even after promulgation.
The Council is made up of nine members, appointed (three each) by the President of the Republic, the leader of the National Assembly, and the leader of the Senate, plus all surviving former heads of state.
In 2011, France is governed by Conservatives.
The main political parties are:
On the right: The Popular Union Movement (UMP - Union pour un Mouvement Populaire), of which Nicolas Sarkozy was leader before becoming President. The UMP has a majority in the National Assembly.
Centre right: the New Centre (Nouveau Centre)
Centre left: The Democratic Movement (Mouvement Démocratique, MoDem)
On the left: the Socialist party (Parti Socialiste, PS) - the main opposition party.
The French Communist Party (parti Communiste Français - PCF).
The Green Party (Les Verts)
(See more detailed article: Political parties in France)
France also has some surprisingly resiliant extremist parties on the left and on the right, including the NPA (Nouveau parti anticapitaliste) and the trotskyist Workers' Party (Lutte ouvrière), and the National Front (Front National).