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February 2011

 File n°46 

Making Government Accountability an Issue of Confidence

 

 

 

 

 

 

    Key Points

    Although article 20 of the 1958 Constitution states that the Government “shall be accountable to Parliament”, article 50 clearly indicates that only a vote by the National Assembly can censure the Government.

    Article 49 of the Constitution lays down three procedures for making Government accountability an issue of confidence before the National Assembly:

    Making the Government’s programme or a statement of general policy an issue of confidence in the Government (article 49, paragraph 1). This is commonly known as a question of confidence;

    The tabling of a motion of censure by M.P.s (article 49, paragraph 2);

    Making the passing of a bill an issue of confidence in the Government (article 49, paragraph 3).

    In practice M.P.s’ use of these different procedures is extensively conditioned by the fact that a majority in the Assembly usually supports the Government.

See also files 3 and 23

 

    The Fifth Republic set up a hybrid political regime with characteristics of both a presidential regime, such as the election of the president by direct universal suffrage and of a parliamentary regime, notably the possibility for the National Assembly to hold the Government to account.

    Article 20 of the 1958 French Constitution provides that the Government “shall be accountable to Parliament in accordance with the terms and procedures set out in articles 49 and 50”. These terms and procedures reflect the desire of the framers to bring together two ideas often seen as opposed: governmental accountability and governmental stability.

    Article 50 limits the power of censure solely to the National Assembly: “When the National Assembly passes a resolution of no-confidence, or when it fails to endorse the Government programme or general policy statement, the Prime Minister shall tender the resignation of the Government to the President of the Republic”. Such cases are the only ones requiring the Prime Minister to tender the resignation of his Government.

    Article 49 of the French Constitution lays down three procedures for making Government accountability an issue of confidence before the National Assembly. The article also provides in its last paragraph for a procedure of approval of a statement of general policy by the Senate. A negative vote in this case would not lead to the resignation of the Government.

    In addition, the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008, introduced two new monitoring procedures which on no account may call confidence in the Government into question: the passing of a resolution by one of the two assemblies (article 34-1) and declarations giving rise to a vote (article 50-1). In these two cases a negative vote would not force the Government to resign.

    I. – ARTICLE 49, PARAGRAPH 1: MAKING THE GOVERNMENT’S PROGRAMME OR A STATEMENT OF GENERAL POLICY AN ISSUE OF CONFIDENCE IN THE GOVERNMENT

    1. – Procedure

    This procedure is initiated by the Government and must be discussed in the Council of Ministers.

    The Prime Minister alone may make the Government’s programme or a statement of general policy an issue of confidence in the Government before the National Assembly.

    According to article 152 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly, it is the task of the Conference of Presidents to organize the debate following the conditions laid down in article 132, which stipulates that it must decide upon the overall time allotted to political groups (with half of the time being given to the opposition) and to non-aligned M.P.s. However until now, the practice has been to allot equal time (20 minutes) to each group and to provide each of them with a further 10 minutes (5 minutes for non-aligned M.P.s) for an explanation of vote.

    An absolute majority of votes cast is required. The vote is by public ballot at the rostrum or in the rooms adjoining the Chamber.

    2. – Practice

    The seeking of the confidence of the National Assembly is not obligatory upon a Government’s entering office. Certain Governments thus, have never done so, either because they wished to show that they held their legitimacy solely from the fact of having been appointed by the President of the Republic, or because, as was the case during the IXth term of Parliament of the Fifth Republic from 1988 to 1993, they did not command an absolute majority in the Assembly. However, since 1993, every government has sought the confidence of the National Assembly within a few days of its appointment.

    In addition, several Governments have, during their term, notably at the time of a specific event, sought the confidence of the National Assembly. In all, article 49, paragraph 1, has been used 33 times since 1958.

    II. – ARTICLE 49, PARAGRAPH 2: THE TABLING OF A MOTION OF CENSURE INITIATED BY MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT

    1. – Procedure

    Members of Parliament may table a motion of censure through the President of the National Assembly. To be admissible, such a motion must be signed by at least one tenth of the members of the Assembly (i.e. 58 members when all constituencies are represented). Nonetheless, in order to avoid the over-use of such motions, each member may only sign such a motion three times during a single ordinary session and once during a single extraordinary session (the motions of censure following the making of a bill an issue of confidence in the Government, in accordance with article 49, paragraph 3 of the Constitution, are not included in this count). After the tabling of the motion, no signature may be added or removed. The names of signatories are listed in the verbatim minutes of the debates published in the Journal officiel.

    The discussion preceding the motion of censure is organized in exactly the same way as the debate preceding the motion of confidence with the stipulation that the first speaker must be one of the signatories of the motion of censure. In practice, a custom has arisen whereby each political group provides only one speaker and there are no explanations of vote.

    Rationalized parliamentarianism, with its desire to provide governmental stability has inspired two mechanisms:

    - The tabling of a motion of censure leads to a 48-hour period during which no vote on the motion may be taken so as to avoid the possibility of votes being cast too impetuously. The Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly also stipulate the maximal time limit. They provide the Conference of Presidents with the task of fixing the timetable of the debate which must take place before the third day of sitting following the end of the limit set down by the Constitution.

    - Only the members in favour of the motion of censure take part in the vote (which is held in the adjoining rooms to the Chamber and which is open for 30 minutes). The motion is only carried if it is supported by the absolute majority of the members of the National Assembly.

    2. – Practice

    Only one motion of censure has ever been passed and that was in 1962. This motion was aimed at showing the National Assembly’s hostility less towards the Government and more towards the plan of General de Gaulle, the then President, to have the head of state elected by direct universal suffrage. The General replied to the censure of the Government by announcing the dissolution of the National Assembly. The subsequent general election returned a majority to the Assembly in favour of the General’s policy.

    The ‘majority phenomenon’ has substantially reduced the impact of the motion of censure. Nowadays it is mainly used as a procedural weapon allowing the opposition to prompt a formal debate.

    III. – ARTICLE 49, PARAGRAPH 3: MAKING THE ADOPTION OF A BILL AN ISSUE OF CONFIDENCE IN THE GOVERNMENT

    1. – Procedure

    Making Government accountability an issue of confidence can be the result of the combination of two initiatives: that of the Prime Minister to seek this confidence before the Assembly over the passing of a Government or Member’s bill in discussion in the Assembly, followed by that of the Members who reply by tabling a motion of censure.

    The Prime Minister may make the passing of a finance bill or of a social security financing bill an issue of confidence in the Government. He may also use this procedure for one other Government or Member’s bill per ordinary or extraordinary sitting. This limitation was introduced by the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008. Previously the Government could use the procedure as often as it considered it necessary and for any type of bill (during the IXth term of Parliament for example, the Government used article 49, paragraph 3 of the Constitution 39 times).

    Prior debate in the Council of Ministers is required, as for the procedure making a Government programme or statement of general policy an issue of confidence.

    The Prime Minister’s decision brings about the immediate suspension, for twenty-four hours, of discussion on the Government or Member’s bill concerning which confidence has been sought. A motion of censure which fulfils the previously mentioned conditions of admissibility may be tabled during this period. Two directions may then be taken:

    - If no censure motion is tabled then the Government or Member’s bill is considered passed;

    - If a censure motion is tabled, it is debated and voted upon in the same conditions as those applying to motions submitted ‘spontaneously’ by members. If the motion is rejected, then the Government or Member’s bill is considered passed. If the motion is carried then the bill is rejected and the Government is overthrown.

    2. – Practice

    The use of article 49, paragraph 3 of the Constitution has varied since 1958. It was rarely used at the beginning of the Fifth Republic. However certain Governments had wide-scale recourse to it because they commanded a very small majority in the National Assembly (the Barre, Rocard, Cresson and Bérégovoy Governments in particular). However, contrary to its original rationale, the procedure has been particularly used to enable the pushing through of legislation on which a large number of amendments have been tabled. Nonetheless this use of the ultimate weapon against obstruction is not as easy as it used to be since the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008 attempted to limit the number of such uses per session.