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The Place of Opposition and Minority Groups
The Constitution recognizes essential prerogratives for the opposition.
It also provides that, since 1958, the opposition may make an issue of Government accountability by tabling a motion of censure (article 49 of the Constitution). It is true that only one such motion of censure has been adopted since then. However, in practice, the procedure is used on a regular basis by the opposition to display its disagreement with Government policy. In this context, its interest is that it leads to the holding of a formal debate.
Since 1974, sixty M.P.s or sixty Senators can refer laws before their promulgation, to the Constitutional Council (article 61, paragraph 2 of the Constitution). This reform strengthened the place of the opposition in Parliament by allowing it to submit the ruling majority (and the Government it supports) to the respect of the fundamental law.
However, until quite recently, the ideas of ruling majority and opposition did not appear in the Constitution. The National Assembly had, indeed, attempted to change its Rules of Procedure so as to provide a legal basis to these two notions (motion of June 7, 2006) but the Constitutional Council opposed it (Decision n°2006-537 DC of June 22, 2006).
The element which was apparently missing was established by the Constitutional Act of July 23, 2008. Since then, the new article 51-1 which was inserted into the Constitution provides that “the Rules of Procedure of each House shall determine the rights of the parliamentary groups set up within it. They shall recognize that opposition groups in the House concerned, as well as minority groups, have specific rights”.
M.P.s and Senators thus made sure that the assemblies would provide specific rights to certain groups and not to others.
Thus, the National Assembly, upon the implementation of its new Rules of Procedure in June 2009, provided for better representation of all its political spectrum in the decision-making bodies of the Assembly. It also provided for the direct participation of opposition and minority groups in the activities of monitoring and assessment as well as the recognition, in their favour, of a certain number of prerogatives, including in the exercise of the legislative function.
I.– OPPOSITION AND MINORITY GROUPS
At the National Assembly M.P.s may gather together by political affinity. Since the entry into force of the motion of May 27, 2009, a group may be constituted as of 15 members, as opposed to 20 previously. To this end, it must transmit a written political statement signed by all its members to the President of the National Assembly.
As specific rights are recognized for opposition and for minority groups, it appeared necessary to include in the Rules of Procedure a definition which would allow such groups to be identified.
This definition appears in article 19 of the Rules of Procedure. It is based on a declaratory procedure (this solution was considered as the most satisfactory and the one which best respected individual freedom) and comes directly from the very terms of the Constitution.
1. – Opposition groups are those which declare themselves as such
Upon their constitution, groups may declare, in the political statement signed by their members which they transmit to the President, their membership of the opposition.
This statement may be made, or withdrawn, at any time. Nonetheless, it is made clear that the “specific rights”, which must necessarily be granted over a period of time, are attributed or not, according to the status of the group at the beginning of each term of Parliament and then annually at the beginning of the ordinary session.
2. – Minority groups are the other groups with the exception of the largest
Minority groups are those which have not declared themselves members of the opposition with the exception of that which has the largest number of members. In concrete terms, they are the smaller groups of the governing majority or groups which are neither in the opposition nor in the governing majority.
Minority groups also have specific rights which are attributed over the same time-scale as for those of the opposition.
II.– BETTER REPRESENTATION IN THE DECISION-MAKING BODIES OF THE ASSEMBLY
“Every endeavour shall be made to ensure that the Bureau reflects the political make-up of the House” (article 10, paragraph 2 of the Rules of Procedure). In the XIIIth term of Parliament, opposition groups also hold ten of the twenty-two positions (two of the six deputy chairmen, one of the three positions of questeur and seven of the twelve positions of secretary).
The opposition is represented in the Conference of Presidents by the chairmen of its groups, by two vice presidents (article 47 of the Rules of Procedure) and by the chairperson of the Finance committee, who -pursuant to article 39 of the Rules of Procedure- must be a member of one of the opposition groups.
With the reform of the Rules of Procedure resulting from the motion of May 27, 2009, the representation of all political tendencies within the decision-making bodies of the Assembly has been strengthened.
1. – The rules of procedure provide the opposition with the chairmanship of certain bodies
By virtue of article 39 of the Rules of Procedure, only an M.P. belonging to a group having declared itself in the opposition may be elected to the chair of the Finance, General Economy and Budgetary Monitoring Committee.
As of the XIVth term of Parliament, the chairmanship of the ad-hoc committee in charge of checking and auditing the accounts of the National Assembly will also, automatically, be granted to the opposition (article 16 of the Rules of Procedure).
2. – The Rules of Procedure provide for the representation of all tendencies within the bodies of the assembly
This requirement of representativity has a particularly broad field of application.
It is applied, in particular, as regards the bureaux of legislative standing committees (four deputy chairmen and four secretaries) of which it is said that every endeavour shall be made to ensure that they reflect the political make-up of the House and represent all of its members (article 39).
An identical rule is provided for the ad-hoc committee in charge of checking and auditing the accounts of the National Assembly (article 16), for commissions of inquiry (article 143) and for fact-finding missions set up by the Conference of Presidents upon the request of the President of the National Assembly (article 145).
As regards fact-finding missions set up by committees, the rule is that those which are composed of two members must include one M.P. belonging to an opposition group. A mission which is composed of more than two members must make every endeavour to make sure that it reflects the political make-up of the Assembly (article 145).
The overall make-up of the Commission for the Assessment and Monitoring of public policies, a new body set up in 2009, must reproduce the political make-up of the Assembly (article 146-2). Its bureau must include at least one deputy chairman from the opposition.
3. – The Rules of Procedure supervise the balance of appointments made to the committees
As of the XIVth term of Parliament, these appointments, and in particular those of the budgetary rapporteurs, shall reflect the political make-up of the Assembly (articles 28 and 146 of the Rules of Procedure).
III.– SHARED RESPONSABILITY IN MONITORING AND ASSESSMENT ACTIVITIES
The Rules of Procedure recognize the opposition’s right to take the initiative and even to pilot certain monitoring and assessment missions.
1. – A right to request regarding commissions of inquiry
Commissions of inquiry have, for some time now, provided the opposition with efficient means of information and monitoring, in particular thanks to the broadening of their powers of investigation since 1977 and to the public nature of their hearings since 1991.
The motion of May 27, 2009, provides, among other things, that each opposition or minority group chairman may request, once per ordinary session, (with the exception of that preceding the renewal of the Assembly), during the Conference of Presidents that a debate on a draft motion aiming at the setting-up of a commission of inquiry, be automatically included on the agenda of a sitting during the first week of monitoring and assessment.
A request for the setting-up of a commission of inquiry which is made in the framework of this procedure may only be rejected if three-fifths of the members of the Assembly vote against it.
2. – The positions of chairman or rapporteur of a commission of inquiry or of a fact-finding mission are shared
Since 2003, the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly provide that the positions of chairman or of rapporteur are to be held automatically by a member of the group of which the first signatory of the draft resolution which led to the setting-up of the commission belongs. In addition, commissions of inquiry have always been composed proportionally according to group size; this practice which was the result of a compromise, was included in the Rules of Procedure in 1991.
Now that the existence of opposition groups has been included in the Rules of Procedure, it has become possible to have a specific mention of the rule of the sharing of the positions of chairman and rapporteur.
Thus, as regards commissions of inquiry, it is provided that one of these two positions will be held automatically by an M.P. belonging to an opposition group. When the commission of inquiry has been created on the basis of the “right to a turn” procedure, one of these two positions is automatically held by a member of the group which has called for the commission (article 143): this is particularly the case when a commission is set up on the initiative of a minority group.
A similar provision was included in article 145 of the Rules of Procedure concerning fact-finding missions set up by the Conference of Presidents: the position of chairman or rapporteur is automatically held by an M.P. of the opposition if these positions are not carried out by the same person.
3. – The distribution between ruling majority and opposition is the rule for the activities of the Commission for the assessment and monitoring of public policies
Once per ordinary session, each group may automatically carry out an assessment report in the framework of the Commission for the Assessment and Monitoring of Public Policies (CEC).
In addition, the Rules of Procedure provide that once the work programme has been decided upon, the commission should appoint two rapporteurs, from among the members chosen by the committees to take part in the assessment, or from amongst its own members: one of these two rapporteurs must belong to an opposition group (article 146-3).
From this point of view, the rules which apply to the CEC, have been borrowed from those within the Assessment and Monitoring Mission (MEC), set up in 1999 by the Finance Committee and within the Assessment and Monitoring Mission for Social Security Financing Laws (MECSS), set up in 2004 by the Cultural, Family and Social Affairs Committee.
4. – The follow-up of the implementation of laws is given to ruling majority-opposition pairs
At the end of a period of six months following the entry into force of a law whose implementation requires the publication of regulatory decisions, a report on the implementation must be presented to the relevant committee. This report describes the regulations which have been published and the decrees which have been issued in order to implement the said law, as well as the provisions which have not been subject to the necessary implementation instruments.
Since the motion of May 27, 2009, the Rules of Procedure provide that this report be presented by two M.P.s, one of whom must belong to an opposition group (article 145-7).
IV.– THE RIGHTS OF THE OPPOSITION AND MINORITY GROUPS IN PLENARY SITTING
The rights of the opposition are also applied in plenary sitting and in the legislative field, they fit in with the idea that there is a majority supporting the Government.
1. – The sharing of monitoring and assessment activities continues in the chamber
Article 48 of the Rules of Procedure provides that each opposition or minority group chairman automatically obtains the inclusion of an assessment or monitoring subject on the agenda of the week now given over to the carrying out of this mission by article 48, paragraph 4 of the Constitution.
In the case of questions (which are procedures involving direct dialogue that have become a major element in monitoring and assessment), the rules concerning the involvement of all political tendencies are very precise:
- Every week, half of the questions to the Government are asked by opposition M.P.s. In addition, the first question is automatically allotted to an opposition or minority group or else to an M.P. belonging to no group;
- Half of the oral questions without debate are asked by M.P.s who are members of an opposition group.
The Conference of Presidents decided to apply the same rule of sharing to sittings involving “questions to a minister” which are held during the week of monitoring and assessment.
2. – The sharing of speaking time is provided for during the main debates
Article 132 of the Rules of Procedure provides that, during debates which give rise to Government statements made on the basis of the new article 50-1 of the Constitution (statements which may be followed by a vote without them becoming an issue of confidence), half the time provided to groups is allotted to opposition groups. The time allotted to opposition groups, on the one hand, and to other groups, on the other hand, is then divided between them proportionally according to their size.
This rule also applies to debates held, in accordance with the first paragraph of article 49 of the Constitution, when the Prime Minister makes the Government’s programme or a statement of general policy, an issue of confidence in the Government (article 152 of the Rules of Procedure).
3. – One day of sitting per month is reserved for opposition and minority groups
Since the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008, article 48 of the Constitution provides that “one day of sitting per month shall be given over to an agenda determined by each House upon the initiative of the opposition groups in the relevant House, as well as upon that of the minority groups”.
The impact of this provision is important since the former wording of article 48 (resulting from the constitutional reform of August 1995) only gave over one sitting per month to an agenda set by each assembly, even if that particular practice had doubled the number of such sittings. In addition, no right was guaranteed to opposition and minority groups who, in practice, controlled only eight sittings per year -to be compared to the 27 sittings they control now.
Article 48 of the Rules of Procedure made the mechanisms for the application of this new provision clear:
- at the beginning of the ordinary session, the sittings devoted to the opposition and minority groups are allocated to them in proportion to their size.
- each group is granted at least three sittings per ordinary session. The sittings may not be on one same day
- Once a month, the Conference of Presidents set up the agenda for the sitting day devoted to opposition and minority groups.
- The opposition and minority groups explicit the matters they wish to see included on the agenda of this day, at the latest at the Conference of Presidents which follows the previous such reserved sitting day;
The group chairmen can decide to include on the agenda, the discussion of a Member’s bill, the consideration of a motion or a debate.
4. – The right to speak of all groups is guaranteed
The National Assembly has decided to introduce a “Set Time Limit Debate Procedure” which fixes the time periods for the examination of bills in plenary sitting so as to enable better organization of the debates, as is the case in many foreign parliaments.
The implementation of this reform is based on mechanisms which guarantee the right to speak for all groups and in particular for the opposition and minority groups.
These guarantees which appear in article 49 of the new Rules of Procedure, number five in all:
- The rules concerning the allotment of time are not the same for the governing majority and for the opposition. It is provided that the minimum time alloted to each group must be longer for the opposition groups. Furthermore, 60% of additional time is alloted to opposition groups and is divided among them proportionally according to their size ;
- The speeches of all group chairmen are not counted in the pre-set time limit if they do not exceed one hour per group chairman. When the overall time alloted between groups is more than forty hours, this limit is raised to two hours ;
- The chairman of any group may automatically obtain “extended set debate time”, equal to a minimum length set by the Conference of Presidents (30 hours at the moment);
- Once per session, a group chairman may automatically obtain “extraordinary set debate time” (50 hours at the moment);
- When the discussion of a bill on first reading occurs less than six weeks after its tabling or less than four weeks after its transmission, a group chairman can avoid the implementation of the Set Time Limit Debate Procedure.