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February 2011

 File n° 48 

Declaration of War and Armed Interventions Abroad







    Key points

    The powers of Parliament concerning defence policy were, for a long time characterized, both on account of the letter of the Constitution but also because of institutional practice, by relative weakness.

    The constitutional reform of July 23, 2008 by increasing both the information which must be provided to Parliament and its monitoring of external operations, represents a major innovation in the world of the armed forces.


In contrast with the situation of other large democracies, the French Parliament has played, until very recently, a rather modest role in the implementation of defence policy.

The articles of the Constitution which underline the predominance of the Executive are in fact quite numerous. Indeed, the Head of State is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and he presides over the higher national defence councils and committees (article 15). He is the guarantor of national independence, territorial integrity and due respect for Treaties (article 5). In the case where serious and immediate threats endanger these vital interests, article 16 grants him the possibility of taking the “measures required by these circumstances”(1).

Article 21 provides, in addition, that the Prime Minister shall be responsible for national defence.

Thus, de facto, Parliament was restricted in these matters, according to article 35, to merely authorizing a declaration of war. This provision has never been used since the beginning of the Fifth Republic.

For several years, many proposals and reports have been put forward with a view to increasing the power of Parliament in such issues. This was all the more the case given that the number and the cost of external operations (OPEX) have grown substantially: some 10,000 to 12,000 troops are involved each year at a cost of nearly 852 million euros in 2008.

This question was looked at quite deeply by the Reflection and Proposal Commission on the Modernization and Re-balancing of the Institutions of the Fifth Republic, chaired by Mr. Edouard Balladur, former Prime Minister. The constitutional reform of July 23, 2008 added to article 35 by introducing an information and monitoring procedure of Parliament on the OPEX.

Thus, the Government must give prior information to Parliament concerning its decision to have the armed forces intervene abroad at least three days before the beginning of the intervention, and must detail the objectives of the intervention; the mechanisms for providing this information are at the discretion of the Government. The information which is so transmitted may give rise to a debate which is not followed by a vote.

After the intervention, in the case of the extension of external operations, the principle which is implemented is that of parliamentary authorization. This applies when the length of the intervention exceeds four months. Since the entry into force of the constitutional reform, the Assembly has had to make two such decisions:

- On September 22, 2008, it thus authorized the extension of the intervention of the armed forces in Afghanistan;

- On January 28, 2009, the extension of five interventions were authorized in Tchad, in the Central African Republic, in Côte d’Ivoire, in Lebanon and in Kosovo.

- As external interventions are often linked to defence agreements, this also led to the broadening of thinking on the improvement of the information provided to Parliament on this issue.

- In fact since such agreements are not part of the international agreements listed in article 53 of the Constitution, there is no obligation for them to be ratified by virtue of a law. Thus, in accordance with a commitment made by the President of the Republic, the list of such defence agreements in force on January 1, 2008, was published in a white paper on defence and national security.

- The military programming law for 2009-2014 completed these provisions by allowing for the fact, in the annexed report, that Parliament would henceforth be informed of the conclusion and guidelines of defence agreements.

(1) The Constitutional Act of July 23, 2008 restricted the powers of the President of the Republic in the implementation of this article.