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February 2011

 File n°4 

The National Assembly and the Senate – General Characteristics of the Parliament







    Key Points

    The French Parliament is bicameral and is made up of the National Assembly, a Chamber elected by direct universal suffrage, and the Senate, elected by indirect universal suffrage and empowered by the Constitution with representing the territorial units of the Republic.

    The excesses of parliamentary sovereignty of the Third and Fourth Republics led the framers of the 1958 Constitution to limit the powers of the assemblies by laying down rules based on “rationalized parliamentarism”.

    The need to modernize parliamentary institutions has allowed the assemblies to gradually assert and clarify their role within the institutions of the Republic. This role is characterized in particular by the constant development of the monitoring activities concerning the executive.

See also files 14 to 58


    The general characteristics of the legislative branch of power in France can be summed up in a double statement:

    - The legislative branch is bicameral: it is shared in an unequal division between two parliamentary assemblies;

    - Its functioning is strictly limited by rules inspired by “rationalized parliamentarism”.


    1. – General characteristics of french bicameralism

    The French Parliament of the Fifth Republic is bicameral: it is made up of the National Assembly and the Senate. The two assemblies sit in two distinct premises (the National Assembly in the Palais Bourbon and the Senate in the Palais du Luxembourg).

    Bicameralism was long considered in French constitutional history either as a means to curb the excesses of single assemblies (in 1795, as a reaction to the all-powerful nature of the Convention, or during the Second Empire, after the period of the Second Republic of 1848-1851) or as a way to consolidate the executive through the splitting-up of the legislative branch (this was brought to its extremes with the Constitutions of the Consulate and the Empire which set up a tricameral Parliament).

    Modern bicameralism is very different, as the second assembly is seen in many countries (e.g. Germany, Belgium, Spain, the United States etc.) as the seat of territorial representation, particularly in federal states where it represents the need to ensure the representation of the federated states alongside that of the population. A similar choice was made in France. The Constitution of the Fifth Republic thus set up a bicameral system in which two assemblies coexist: a National Assembly which is elected by direct universal suffrage and represents the citizens and a Senate which is elected by indirect universal suffrage and represents the territorial units of the Republic.

    As is the case with other Parliaments made up of two assemblies (with the notable exception of the Italian Parliament), French bicameralism is an unequal system as the National Assembly has much broader powers than those of the Senate:

    - It alone can call the Government to account by refusing to grant it its confidence or by passing a censure motion (following the same idea, only the National Assembly can be dissolved by the President of the Republic);

    - In the case of disagreement with the Senate, the Government can decide to grant the National Assembly “the final say” in the legislative procedure (except for constitutional acts and institutional acts concerning the Senate);

    - The Constitution provides the National Assembly with a more important role in the examination of the finance bill and the social security financing bill. Thus the tabling for a first reading of such bills must be before the National Assembly and the time limits granted for their examination are much longer for the National Assembly.

    - In almost all other areas the two assemblies are provided with the same powers.

    - If the two assemblies do not have the same powers, they also do not have the same renown. Citizens know the National Assembly and the M.P.s whom they have elected much better. In addition, the media cover the proceedings of the National Assembly much more closely as its debates are more central to the main political issues and because the vast majority of the important political leaders are or have been M.P.s.

    2. – The Senate of the Fifth Republic

    The first characteristic of the Senate is its permanence: in contrast with the National Assembly, it cannot be dissolved. This permanence is the main justification for the Constitution of the Fifth Republic to grant the provisional exercise of the office of the President of the Republic to the President of the Senate if the former is prevented from doing so, if he resigns or if he dies. This interim is limited to the time needed to organize a presidential election (in practice, it lasts around 50 days).

    The specificity of the Senate lies in the role of the representation of the territorial units which is granted to it by article 24 of the Constitution. The method of electing Senators ensues from this role.

    The Senate has been made up of 343 Senators since 2008 (this will be raised to 348 in 2011) who are elected by indirect universal suffrage for six years. Half the Senate is renewed every 3 years.

    The Senators are elected by a college of around one hundred and fifty thousand grand electors (who are required to participate in the vote). This college is made up of:

    - M.P.s, regional councillors, councillors of the Assembly of Corsica, departmental councillors and councillors of the City of Paris;

    - Delegates of the municipal councils whose number depends on the population of the municipality:

        • 1 to 15 delegates for municipalities of less than nine thousand inhabitants;

        • All the municipal councillors for municipalities of between nine thousand and thirty thousand inhabitants;

        • The entire municipal council plus a supplementary delegate (elected by proportional ballot by the municipal council itself) for every thousand inhabitants in municipalities of over thirty thousand inhabitants.

    This system leads to a very strong representation for small rural municipalities within the college of grand electors since there are around thirty thousand municipalities of this type in France.

    The voting method varies according to the constituency:

    - In the constituencies electing fewer than four senators, the method is a two-round majority system;

    - In those electing four or more Senators (i.e. the fifteen most populous departments), the method is one of proportional representation with the application of the rule of the highest average for the distribution of the remaining votes.

    - All candidates for the office of Senator must be, at least, thirty years old.

    - This role of representation of territorial units explains why article 39 of the Constitution recognizes that bills concerning the organization of such units are first presented to the Senate.

    - Before the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008 it was the Senate and the Senate alone which represented the French living abroad. The latter elect 12 Senators by indirect suffrage. It was for this reason that the Senate examined, before the National Assembly, all bills dealing with bodies representing French people living outside of France. However, soon the French living abroad will be represented at the National Assembly as well as in the Senate. This situation has led to the abolition of the priority consideration of such bills previously granted to the Senate.


    1. – Application of the principles of rationalized parlementarism

    One of the main aims of the framers of the 1958 Constitution was to limit the excesses of parliamentary sovereignty which was one of the principle causes of the governmental instability which had prevailed during the Third and Fourth Republics.

    According to Michel Debré, “Governmental stability cannot first of all be the result of an electoral law but must be that of constitutional rule”. The latter was to be composed of “four series of measures:

    - A very strict calendar of sessions;

    - An attempt at defining the ambit of statute;

    - A profound reorganization of the legislative procedure;

    - An adjustment of the legal mechanisms necessary for the balance and the correct operation of the political institutions”.

    The formulation of these principles in the Constitution took a variety of forms:

    - Two sessions of around three months each per year;

    - Control of the agenda of the assemblies by the Government;

    - Limitation of the right of parliamentarians to initiate legislation and to amend concerning the ambit of statute as defined by the Constitution and the rules of financial admissibility;

    - Prior examination by the Constitutional Council of the Rules of Procedure of the assemblies;

    - Limitation to six of the number of standing committees;

    - Broad control by the Government of the legislative procedure (declaration of emergency, convening of joint committees, recourse to a forced vote etc.);

    - Strict limitations placed on the budgetary procedure;

    - Possibility of having a law passed without a vote unless the Government is defeated (article 49, paragraph 3 of the Constitution);

    - Strict definition of the conditions of votes of no-confidence in the Government.

    2. – The modernization of the role of Parliament

    All of these measures had, as their primary objective, the limitation of the role of Parliament. In fact, a certain retreat in Parliament’s role can be noticed in the years which immediately followed the setting-up of the new system. The strong personality of General de Gaulle, the first President of the Fifth Republic, along with the fact that the excesses of the Parliament of the Fourth Republic were still to the forefront of people’s minds can explain this temporary decline in the role of the parliamentary institution.

    However Parliament, by exploring the avenues of modernization, has gradually regained quite an amount of its influence. Several reforms which have been implemented over the course of the last two decades bear witness to this development:

    - The constant increase in the monitoring activities of Parliament (the proliferation of committees of inquiry, the setting-up of information missions within standing committees, the birth and development of the procedures of questions to the Government, the establishment of several parliamentary offices etc.);

    - The introduction, in 1995, of the single ordinary session of nine months instead of the system based on two three-month sessions;

    - The intervention of Parliament since 1996 on the question of the financing of social security through the adoption of a new type of law;

    - The implementation, since 2005, of a new procedure for the adoption of finance bills which has greatly strengthened Parliament’s role in the budgetary area.

    - The constitutional revision of July 23, 2008 has introduced several important developments in this direction which should lead to a distinct strengthening of the role and the powers of Parliament:

    - Before 1995 one sitting per month was given over to a priority agenda set by each assembly. Today the Constitution provides for the sharing of the control of the agenda between each assembly and the Government. Two out of four weeks are reserved for the priority consideration of bills and for debates requested by the Government but the other two weeks are given over to an agenda set down by each assembly; nonetheless the Government may always have priority to include on the agenda several types of bill such as finance bills and social security financing bills;

    - The growth of the powers of Parliament in the legislative procedure: the Government is now required to respect, upon first reading, a six-week period between the tabling of a bill and its discussion in plenary sitting or a four-week period between its transmission by the assembly where it is first tabled and the discussion, except when it has implemented the accelerated procedure; the latter now replaces the declaration of emergency and the Conferences of Presidents of the two assemblies may jointly oppose its implementation; bills must now be accompanied by impact studies; the discussion of bills in plenary sitting, with the exception of some such as the finance bill, now deals directly with the text adopted in committee; the presidents of the two assemblies may jointly call for the meeting of a joint committee on a Member’s bill;

    - The restriction of the possibility for the Government to call on the provisions of article 49, paragraph 3 (the passing of a bill without a vote) to a single bill during any one session, outside of finance bills and social security financing bills upon which they may make their accountability an issue of confidence;

    - The development of the means of monitoring and assessment through the increase in the number of standing committees (from six to eight), through the creation at the National Assembly of a Committee for the Assessment and Monitoring of Public Policies and through the introduction of the assisting of Parliament by the Court of Auditors in the oversight of Government action and in the assessment of public policies;

    - The submitting of certain appointments formerly solely within the remit of the President of the Republic to the opinion of the relevant standing committees in each assembly;

    - The informing of Parliament by the Government of its decision to have the armed forces intervene abroad and, when such an intervention lasts longer than four months, the obligation for the Government to submit such an extension to the agreement of Parliament.