We are witnessing an unprecedented reality in the country’s political life following the recent victory of the opposition in the parliamentary elections held on 1 October, 2012. This change has established the President and the parliamentary majority as two opposing political forces. The President was compelled by law to nominate a candidate for the position of prime minister who was the most acceptable for the parliamentary majority. As a result the President and the Prime Minister led government represent two opposing political parties – a condition referred to, by the French, as Cohabitation.
La Cohabitation describes a political state of institutional coexistence between a president and a prime minister from two opposing political parties. Cohabitation as a term takes its roots from the constitution of the French Fifth Republic, when France became a semi-presidential republic. Such "co-existence" is only possible under a semi-presidential rule, whereby parliament can dismiss the government by a vote of no confidence and the president, for his part, has the right to dissolve the parliament.
The first Cohabitation occurred in France in 1986 under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand when the right wing gained a majority in the parliament’s lower house elections. As a result Mitterrand was forced to appoint his political rival Jacques Chirac as Prime Minister - then a major test for the Constitution of the Fifth Republic under which the distribution of power among the president, government and parliament often proved to be contradictory and opaque.
This Cohabitation was in essence a conflicting co-existence, nevertheless, it did not rule out cooperation on matters in which the parties shared the same opinion. As a result, the government, headed by the Prime Minister, was mainly engaged in domestic affairs, while the president had a limited role as an arbiter in this area; foreign and European policy, defense, and nuclear strategy, however, remained within his influence. This type of cohabitation benefited primarily President Mitterrand. He managed to solve internal problems, which he interfered with only when the government was in a disadvantageous position, which also boosted his popularity. Consequently, he easily won the 1988 presidential elections against the right leader Jacques Chirac as his opponent. He then dissolved the parliament and his socialist block won the elections in the new National Assembly once more. Thus ended the first cohabitation in France.
The next cohabitation took place again during the presidency of Francois Mitterrand in 1993, when the right-wing won 80 per cents of seats in the National Assembly. Mitterrand was once again compelled to appoint a Prime Minister from the opposition, this time Edward Balladur. Jacques Chirac did not put forward his own candidacy at that time as he was preparing for the 1995 presidential elections. This cohabitation was relatively calm, the reason, first of all, being that, unlike the first cohabitations, the president and the prime minister were not rivals in the presidential elections held two years later, secondly, Mitterrand was both politically unpopular as well as having been diagnosed with cancer. As a result, the second Cohabitation was characterized with the political dominance of the Prime Minister.
The third Cohabitation was established in France when the right leader Jacques Chirac, then incumbent President, did not wait for the elections and dismissed Parliament in 1997. As a result, the socialists won the early elections and Chirac was compelled to appoint the opposition leader Lionel Jospin as Prime Minister. This Cohabitation was the longest and lasted 5 years. It was characterized by extreme confrontation between Prime Minister and the President. Chirac alluded to that period as political "paralysis". The president was particularly restricted in domestic policy, where the socialist majority managed to carry out several leftist reforms. The third Cohabitation ended with the National Assembly elections in 2002 with the right wing attaining a decisive victory.
As mentioned above, France was the first country to make Cohabitation between the president and the prime minister possible. The event, however, took place in other countries as well, such as Finland, Romania, Ukraine and others.