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The Rhythm of Sessions and Sittings
I. – THE RHYTHM OF SESSIONS
According to article 28 of the 1958 Constitution, (in its revised version since the constitutional amendment of 1995), Parliament shall convene as of right in one ordinary session. Upon the request of the Prime Minister or of a majority of members of the National Assembly, it may be convened in extraordinary session, which is opened and closed by decree of the President of the Republic (articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution). In addition, exceptional circumstances may occur during the recess and require the holding of sittings of the National Assembly and of the Senate (e.g. the implementation of emergency powers according to article 16 of the Constitution or the gathering to listen to a message from the President of the Republic). The National Assembly is also convened, as of right, after the general elections following a dissolution.
Outside of these periods, which are specifically set down by the Constitution, the assemblies may not hold plenary sittings and may not pass any laws. However nothing bars their internal bodies, in particular the standing committees, from meeting in order to prepare the legislative work for the following session or to carry out their job of monitoring the Government.
1. – Ordinary session
a) The origins of the Constitutional Revision of 1995
In its previous version, the 1958 Constitution made provision for two ordinary sessions of about three months each: the first in the autumn, lasting ninety days from October 2 and the second in the spring, lasting ninety days from April 2. The two were separated by parliamentary recesses. The opening of the ordinary session in April was the reference point which marked the beginning of the new term of Parliament, except in the case of dissolution (“The powers of the National Assembly expire upon the opening of the fifth ordinary session in April following its election”).
By instituting a single nine-month session, the 1995 constitutional revision of 1995 had a double objective:
- To strengthen the importance of the parliamentary assemblies within the institutions, by allowing them to carry out their monitoring role over Government and also over the institutions of the European Union, in a more continuous fashion;
- To adapt the rhythm of the meetings of Parliament to the requirements of the legislative work. From 1958, the number of days of sitting of the National Assembly had continued to increase almost systematically (from 90 between 1959 and 1970, it had reached 100 by 1971 and was more than 150 in 1982). The narrowness of the time limits imposed by the Constitution had led to the implementation of compensatory measures or practices. The number of night sittings and especially extraordinary sessions had increased substantially (between 1958 and 1995, Parliament was summoned 60 times for sessions which were becoming less and less ‘extraordinary’. Of these 60 extraordinary sessions, 59 were convened upon the request of the Prime Minister).
b) The Single Session
The Congress, gathered at Versailles on July 31, 1995, adopted the following text: “Parliament shall sit as of right in one ordinary session which shall start on the first working day of October and shall end on the last working day of June”.
Nevertheless, in order to avoid the situation where the move to the single session might increase the trend towards ‘legislative inflation’ which had been denounced by the parliamentarians themselves, but also by such institutions as the Conseil d’État, or the Constitutional Council, the 1995 constitutional revision placed a limit of 120 on the number of days of sitting during which each assembly could meet in the normal course of a session. The holding of additional days of sitting may however be decided by the Prime Minister, after consultation with the President of the relevant assembly, or by a majority of the members of each assembly. The limit of 120 days was exceeded for the first time during the 2008-09 parliamentary session. The Government may not, however, require an assembly to sit outside of the days and times appointed by its Rules of Procedure.
The length of the ordinary session is not affected by the expiry of the powers of the National Assembly, whether this be upon the reaching of the end of its normal term on “the third Tuesday in June of the fifth year following its election” (article L.O. 121 of the electoral code), or upon its dissolution by the President of the Republic in accordance with article 12 of the Constitution. The Senate may, in fact, continue to sit although it is customary that it adjourns its proceedings until the new National Assembly sits.
The closing of a session, either ordinary or extraordinary, and the limit on the number of days of sitting should not prevent Parliament and in particular the National Assembly, from carrying out the most essential of its prerogatives. This is why article 51 of the Constitution makes provision for this closing to be postponed or for additional sittings to be held by right, to allow the National Assembly to make Government accountability an issue of confidence.
Likewise in accordance with article 26 of the Constitution, the National Assembly and the Senate must be able to continue their proceedings beyond the 120-day sitting limit, in order to decide upon the suspension of the detention, of the subjection to custodial or semi-custodial measures, or of the prosecution, of one of their members.
2. – Extraordinary sessions
Parliament shall convene in extraordinary session, at the request of the Prime Minister or of the majority of the members of the National Assembly, to consider a specific agenda (article 29, paragraph one, of the Constitution). Extraordinary sessions shall be opened and closed by decree of the President of the Republic (article 30).
Where an extraordinary session is held at the request of the majority of M.P.s, the decree closing it shall take effect once Parliament has dealt with the agenda for which it was convened, or twelve days after the opening of the session, whichever shall be the earlier.
Institutional practice has in fact made the right to convene Parliament in extraordinary session a discretionary power of the President of the Republic. The President is not required to follow the proposal of the Prime Minister or of the majority of M.P.s. In practice, since the beginning of the Fifth Republic, only one extraordinary session has been called at the request of a majority of M.P.s: the session from 14-16 March 1979, which dealt with two draft resolutions calling for the setting-up of commissions of inquiry on the employment situation and the conditions concerning public information.
Only the Prime Minister may request a new session before the end of the month following the decree closing an extraordinary session.
In practice, both the National Assembly and the Senate are convened but it has happened in the past that the agenda of the extraordinary session has only concerned one of the two assemblies.
The introduction of the single session system has not brought an end to the increase in the number of extraordinary sessions. Thus, since the opening of the XIIIth term of Parliament, extraordinary sessions have been held after the closing of the three ordinary sessions in 2006-2007, 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, and extraordinary session were convened in September 2007, 2008 and 2009. All these sessions have been at the request of the Prime Minister.
3. – Sessions as of right
Parliament is also convened, as of right, outside of the annual session and if it is not already in session, in three specific circumstances laid down by the Constitution:
- Article 16 makes provision for the convening, as of right, of the two assemblies when the President of the Republic decides to have recourse to the emergency powers which the said article grants him.
- Article 18 makes provision for the two assemblies to be specially convened, out of session, in order to listen to the reading of a message from the President of the Republic.
- Article 12 makes provision for the convening of the National Assembly, newly elected after a dissolution, on the second Thursday following its election. Should it so convene outside the period prescribed for the ordinary session, a session (during which the two assemblies may meet) shall be called by right for a fifteen-day period. If this first meeting is held less than fifteen days after the end of the ordinary session, the latter is extended accordingly by a session as of right.
II. – RULES CONCERNING THE RHYTHM AND LENGTH OF PLENARY SITTINGS
When the National Assembly is convened and in particular during the ordinary session, it is not always in sitting. In fact it sits according to a calendar organized by the week, by the day of sitting and by the sitting. Certain sittings are given over to a specific agenda.
The organization of the plenary sittings in the National Assembly attempts to fulfil several objectives which are not always easily reconcilable:
- To make provision for the time necessary for the examination of the items on the agenda whilst respecting the constitutional limit of 120 days of sitting per ordinary session;
- To avoid having the plenary sittings interfere with the meetings of other bodies of the National Assembly and in particular with meetings of political groups, and committees;
- To allow M.P.s to carry out, in the best conditions possible, their other activities and in particular those linked to other elected offices they may hold.
- The diversity of these objectives and the variation in the time constraints which they lead to, means that the organization of the “parliamentary week” is as much based on custom or the agreement of the various actors concerned (the President of the National Assembly, the Government, the political groups of the governing majority and of the opposition) as it is on the application, to the letter, of the texts which regulate this field.
The new wording of article 48 of the Constitution, subsequent to the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008, makes provision, in addition to the sharing of control of the agenda between the Government and Parliament, for one week of sittings out of four to be given over, in priority, and in the order set by each assembly, to the monitoring of Government action and to the assessment of public policies. Furthermore, one day per month is to be given over to an agenda set by each assembly upon the initiative of the opposition and the minority groups in the said assembly.
The same article states that at least one sitting per week, including during extraordinary sessions, shall be given over, in priority, to questions from members of Parliament and to answers by the Government. In accordance with article 133 of the Rules of Procedure, the Conference of Presidents sets the sittings for Government question time during the ordinary sessions. Traditionally these are held at the beginning of the sittings on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons. The extraordinary session in July 2009 was the first of the Fifth Republic during which a weekly sitting of Government question time was held.
Apart from this, article 28 of the Constitution allows the assemblies to determine their weeks of sitting. In practice, it is more a case for them to determine the weeks they will not sit (during holiday periods or election campaigns for example). The article then states that the days and the hours of sittings shall be determined by the Rules of Procedure of each assembly.
On this basis, the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly provides that the Assembly will sit each week on Tuesday mornings, afternoons and evenings, as well as Wednesday afternoons and evenings and Thursday mornings, afternoons and evenings. The times of sittings are the following: 9.30a.m.-1p.m., 3p.m.-8p.m. and 9.30p.m.-1a.m.
In order to maintain the necessary flexibility of the system, the Rules of Procedure also establish the procedures which can modify these rules, whilst, at the same time, respecting the limit set down in the second paragraph of article 28 of the Constitution: additional sittings may be held upon the proposal of the Conference of Presidents or, by right, upon the request of the government.
In the same way, the National Assembly may decide to depart from the timetable set down by the Rules of Procedure, either upon a proposal of the Conference of Presidents (on a specific agenda) or upon a proposal of the relevant committee or of the Government to continue the debate which is being held.
These possibilities of departing from the normal time procedure are particularly used during the period when the National Assembly is examining the finance bill (approximately from October 20 to November 20) when sittings are held on Mondays and Fridays in addition to the three days provided for in the Rules of Procedure and even, at times, on Saturday and Sunday, if necessary.
In its original version, amended on December 30, 1963, the Constitution made provision for the spring session to open on the last Tuesday of April.