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Head of State

A head of state is the chief public representative of a nation-state, federation or commonwealth, whose role generally includes personifying the continuity and legitimacy of the state and exercising powers, functions and duties granted to the head of state in the country's constitution. In Charles de Gaulle's words, describing the role he envisaged for the French president when he wrote the modern French constitution, a head of state should embody "the spirit of the nation" to the nation itself and to the world: une certaine idée de la France.

In a monarchy, the monarch is the head of state. In a republic, the head of state is usually called president, though some leaders have assumed other titles (some used "Head of State" as their only formal title).

Table of contents
1 Roles of a Head of State
2 The Head of State and the Government
3 Symbolic role
4 Selection of Heads of State
5 Other Information

Roles of a Head of State

Patrice MacMahon, duc de Magenta
President of the Third French Republic (1875-1879)
controversially dissolved parliament in 1877.
In practical terms, heads of state fulfil a number of criteria;

Example: under the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (constitution), Article 59 (1) states -
The Federal President shall represent the Federation in its international relations. He shall conclude treaties with foreign states on behalf of the Federation. He shall accredit and receive envoys.

George Washington
1st President of the United States

Chief Executive Officer: In the vast majority of states, whether republics or monarchies, executive authority (ie, the source of governmental power) is vested in the head of state. Even in parliamentary systems where governments are directly answerable to parliament, governments may still in theory exercise powers via the head of state, producing such terms as Her Majesty's Government or His Excellency's Government. Examples are found in, among other states, Australia, Austria, Canada Denmark, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. The few exceptions include Republic of Ireland and Sweden.

Example No 1. (Victorian era monarchical constitution): Under Chapter II, Section 61 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 1900
The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen's representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.

Example No 2. (mid 20th century monarchical constitution): According to Section 12 of the Constitution of Denmark 1953,
Subject to the limitations laid down in this Constitution Act the King shall have the supreme authority in all the affairs of the Realm, and he shall exercise such supreme authority through the Ministers.

Example No 3. (modern republican constitution): According to Article 26 (2) of the 1975 Constitution of Greece
The executive power shall be exercised by the President of the Republic and by the government.

Example: Article 13.2.2. of the Constitution of Ireland states:
The President may in absolute discretion refuse to dissolve Dáil Éireann on the advice of a Taoiseach [prime minister] who has ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann

The Federal Council of Switzerland
The seven-member collective Head of State of Switzerland
Example: Section 11.a.1. of the Basic Laws of Israel states:
The President of the State shall sign every Law, other than a Law relating to its powers.

The Head of State and the Government

Emperor Napoleon III
President of the Second French Republic
''made himself Emperor of France (1852-70)
In Presidential systems or in absolute monarchies, a head of state is normally not merely head of state but the active'' chief executive officer of the government. The principal example of this is the United States.

In parliamentary systems, though the head of state may be the nominal chief executive officer of the state, in reality powers are usually exercised by a cabinet, presided over by a Prime Minister who is answerable to parliament. However, exceptions exist even to this; for instance, in some times of exceptional crisis during the 20th century (typically German invasions), the then King of the Belgians has exercised this capacity directly; this shows that such a direct capacity had and may still have a latent existence there, and so possibly elsewhere as well. Most recently, Liechtenstein gave its Prince unprecedented constitutional powers in 2003, including veto of parliament and power to dismiss the government at whim.

In some semi-presidential systems, a president may be an active player in government, with the government answerable in practice both to the head of state and parliament. The most striking example is the current Fifth French Republic. In the French case, where parliament is controlled by the party which the President belonged to, the President is usually the dominant political player in government. Where, however, the 'opposition' to the President control parliament, given that the government is answerable to parliament, the President has little choice but to share power with an 'opposition' government. When this occurs, it is called Cohabitation. In practice, the government controls the internal policy agenda, with the President limiting his role to foreign affairs, subject to the government.

Symbolic role

As the above quote by Charles de Gaulle indicates, one of the most important roles of the modern head of state is being a symbolic national symbol of the nation.

In most countries portraits of the head of state can be found in government offices, airports, libraries, and other buildings of the sort. The idea is to use these portraits to make the public aware of the symbolic connection to the government, a practice that dates back to mediaeval times. Sometimes this practice is taken to excess, and the head of state begins to believe that he is the only symbol of the nation. A personality cult thus ensues, where the image of the head of state is the only visual representation of the country, surpassing other symbols such as the flag, constitution, founding fathers, etc.

In diplomatic affairs, heads of state are often the first person to greet an important foreign visitor. They may also assume a sort of informal "host" role during the VIP's visit, inviting the vistor to a state dinner at his or her mansion or palace, or some other equally hospitable affair.

Selection of Heads of State

Elizabeth II
multiple head of state, as
Queen of the United Kingdom,
Australia, Canada,
New Zealand and other states
Heads of state may:


In some cases, where one person holds multiple headships of state, they may be represented by a Governor-General. Examples are Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, resides in another of her kingdoms, the United Kingdom, and so is represented by a Governor-General. Nations outside of the UK that recognize Elizabeth II as their Queen are known as Commonwealth Realms, and maintain ties to the monarchy as a recognition of their colonial history.

The Governor-General may fulfill many of the roles of a head of state, but is not legally the head of state, rather an appointed representative of the head of state that can act as the head of state in her absence from that constitutional monarchy. Some may consider the Governor-General as the de facto head of state of a country as the monarch rarely exercises the reserve powers of the crown. See, for example, the Queen of Canada.


Other Information

Every head of state is provided with a state residence or residences, often called a 'palace'. Among the most famous such residences are:

See also: Loss of Supply, President, Prime Minister, Monarch, Governor-General, List of national leaders