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File n° 5
The Congress of Parliament
Under the Fifth Republic, Congress is the meeting of the two Houses of Parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate).
I.– THE THREE CASES FOR THE CONVENING OF PARLIAMENT IN CONGRESS
The Constitution nowadays provides for three cases for the convening of Congress:
- since 1958, Congress may be convened in order to revise the Constitution: one of the two procedures which may lead to the revision of the Constitution, as laid down in article 89, provides that instead of submitting a constitutional reform bill passed in the same terms by the National Assembly and the Senate, to a referendum, the President of the Republic may decide to submit it to Parliament convened in Congress. In this case the bill is passed only if it obtains a three fifths majority of votes cast. Since 1958, twenty-one out of twenty-two constitutional revisions have been passed by Congress during sixteen meetings;
- since 2008, Congress may also be convened to hear a declaration of the President of the Republic: the revision of July 23, 2008 included in paragraph 2 of article 18, the possibility for the Head of State to “take the floor before Parliament convened in Congress for this purpose. His statement may give rise, in his absence, to a debate without vote”. Upon the first use of this provision on June 22, 2009, the declaration of the President of the Republic was followed by a debate;
- finally, the Congress may, also since 2008, be convened to approve the membership of a state to the European Union (article 88-5 of the Constitution): even though bills concerning membership are, in principle, submitted to referendum, Parliament may decide, by adopting a motion passed in identical terms by a three fifths majority in each assembly, that such a bill may be submitted to Congress. In such a case, the bill must be passed by a three fifths majority of the votes cast.
II. – THE WORKING OF CONGRESS
1. – Convening and closing
The President of the Republic convenes Congress by a countersigned decree which sets the agenda. However the closing of Congress is announced by the President of Congress (who is the President of the National Assembly).
2. – Seat
The Congress sits in the Château de Versailles, in the Debating Chamber of the Aile du Midi.
These particular premises have long been associated with Parliament since the National Assembly was in fact born in Versailles after the delegates of the Third Estate to the Estates General were refused access to the Salle des Menus Plaisirs, and proceeded to the Salle du Jeu de Paume where they swore their oath on June 20, 1789.
After the defeat of 1870, the national representation sat at Versailles between March 1871 and August 1879 and it was only once the Republic had been properly established that it moved definitively to Paris. It would only return to Versailles from time to time – for the election of the President of the Republic under the Third and Fourth Republics as well as for constitutional revisions under the Fifth Republic.
Since law n° 2005-844 of July 26, 2005, only “the Debating Chamber of the Congress and its accesses are allocated to the National Assembly and the Senate” and “the other premises necessary for the holding of the Congress of Parliament located at the Château de Versailles, will be, as and whenever necessary, made available for no charge, to the National Assembly and the Senate”.
3. – Organization
- The Rules of Procedure of Congress
Congress is run according to its own Rules of Procedure which are based on the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly. Upon the passing of these Rules of Procedure in 1963, the Constitutional Council recognized itself as competent to judge their conformity to the Constitution given that Congress was considered a parliamentary assembly in the sense of article 61, paragraph 1 of the Constitution (decision 63-24 DC of December 20, 1963).
The Rules of Procedure were last modified on June 22, 2009 to introduce the possibility for the President of the Republic to make a speech before Congress as provided for by the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008.
As for the National Assembly, the “General Instructions of the Bureau” lay down the mechanisms for the implementation of the Rules of Procedure of the Congress.
- The Managing Bodies
Congress is managed by a “Bureau which has full power to preside over the deliberations and to organize and direct all departments” (article 3 of the Rules of Procedure of Congress).
This Bureau is the Bureau of the National Assembly.
The President of the Congress is tasked with guaranteeing the internal and external security of the Congress.
During the sitting, he directs the deliberations, enforces the Rules of Procedure, keeps order and informs Congress of the communications which concern it.
- The seating of the Members of Congress.
The Members of the National Assembly and the Senators are not seated in the Chamber by political groups as at the National Assembly and the Senate but by alphabetical order according to their last name.
4. – Rules concerning the proceedings of Congress
a) The Deliberations of Congress
When Congress is required to vote on a Government-sponsored or Parliament-sponsored constitutional bill or on the membership of a state to the European Union, it may not, contrary to a legislative assembly, avail of the right to amendment. In a similar fashion to when the people votes by referendum, Congress may only approve or reject the text submitted to it.
However, as a legislative assembly, Congress does deliberate. Its President for example, may authorize points of order. He may also give the floor for explanations of vote.
Although the Rules of Procedure of the Congress state that Congress “shall usually vote by show of hands on all matters”, it also sets down that a public ballot shall be held as of right upon the decision of the President, upon the request of the Government, upon the request of a chairman of one of the groups of either of the assemblies (or of his representative) or when the Constitution requires a qualified majority. Thus votes on constitutional revisions give rise by definition to a public ballot. These ballots are held by means of an electronic ballot box in the rooms adjacent to the Chamber. Consequently, voting by show of hands is usually reserved for draft motions aimed at amending the Rules of Procedure of Congress.
b) Statement by the President of the Republic
Contrary to the cases provided for in articles 88-5 and 89 of the Constitution, the statement by the President of the Republic does not give rise to a vote. Article 23 of the Rules of Procedure of Congress describes in detail the procedure which should be followed in this particular case.
The debate which follows the statement (and which according to the Constitution can only be held in the absence of the Head of State) is granted as of right if requested by the chairman of one of the political groups of either of the assemblies at the latest by midday on the eve of the Congress. It may also be decided upon by the Bureau of the Congress.
At the time appointed for his statement, the President of the Republic is ushered into the Chamber upon the order of the President of Congress who immediately gives him the floor. Upon the conclusion of his statement, the President of the Republic is shown out of the Chamber in the same way. The sitting must then be suspended or closed. No Member of Congress is allowed to speak during the statement.
Articles 70 to 77 inclusive of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly concerning discipline are applied during Congress.