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Questions represent the most direct (and for oral questions, the most immediate) form of monitoring of Government action by the Parliament.
I. – ORAL QUESTIONS
The right to question the Government during plenary sittings was established by the 1958 Constitution and was strengthened by the constitutional revisions of 1995 and 2008. Henceforth “during at least one sitting per week, including during the extraordinary sittings, (…) priority shall be given to questions from Members of Parliament and to answers from the Government” (Article 48, paragraph 6 of the Constitution).
In this framework, the National Assembly, in agreement with the Government freely manages its oral question sittings. The conditions for tabling a question are laid down by the Bureau and the organization of the sittings is carried out by the Conference of Presidents.
The practice of asking oral questions, followed by a debate, has almost fallen into abeyance but a new practice, that of asking oral questions without debate, was established in 1974.
1. – Oral questions without debate
Oral questions are asked by an M.P. to a minister. This prohibits all collective questions (in particular those which could be asked by the chairman of a political group or of a standing committee).
They must be drafted briefly and be limited to those elements absolutely essential for the understanding of the question. The draft of the question, which is very often of a local nature for the M.P. who is the author, is then presented to the President of the National Assembly who in turn notifies the Government.
Since the constitutional reform of July 23, 2008, the Conference of Presidents has set down the principle that the sittings of oral questions without debate would be organized mostly during the monitoring weeks. They take place during the Tuesday and Thursday morning sittings. The number of questions asked per sitting, which previously was 25, has been raised to 32 and the distribution of questions between the groups is based on the principle of parity which is used during Government question time. The available time for each question including the minister’s answer and a right to reply has been decreased from 7 to 6 minutes.
During the 2008-2009 session, 15 question sittings were organized and 414 questions were asked.
2. – Government question time
Drawn up by the Conference of Presidents, the procedure of Government question time was implemented in 1974, in addition to the Rules of Procedure. It was designed to last for one hour per week. Since the introduction of the single parliamentary session in 1995, two sittings of one hour each have been given over to this procedure on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, including during the period of the budgetary discussion.
The organization of Government question time was changed in February 2008: the time given over to each question, including the minister’s answer was reduced from 5 to 4 minutes and time devices were set up in the Chamber so that everyone can now check that this rule is respected.
This decrease has meant that 15 questions can be asked per sitting instead of the previous 12. In addition, parity between the governing majority and the opposition is maintained over the two sittings with 15 questions for the former and 15 for the latter. Non-aligned M.P.s may ask one question every two months.
During the sitting, the President calls out the questions in such a way as to have questions alternate between those coming from the governing majority and those asked by an opposition group. The first question is automatically asked by a member of the opposition or of a minority group.
Unlike the oral questions, questions to the Government are not tabled, notified or published in advance. In principle, their content is not communicated to the Government and only the names of the authors are transmitted one hour before the opening of the sitting. The spontaneous nature of these questions and the presence of the entire Government ensure a substantial audience at these sittings which, in addition, on account of their being televised, represent one of the high points of parliamentary life.
The content of the questions is entirely open (only insults and threats are prohibited). In practice, the dual procedure of oral questions and questions to the Government has enabled the first to be given over to questions of local interest and the second to political questions of a more general nature.
During the ordinary session of 2008-2009, 816 questions were asked to the Government in 61 sittings.
3. – Questions to a minister
Within the framework of the week given over each month to monitoring, the Conference of Presidents decided to set up a new procedure involving questions to a minister. This resembles the procedure known as “fine-tooth comb questions” which was implemented between 1989 and 1992.
The time reserved for this procedure is one and a half hours. The length of the questions and the length of the answers is limited to 2 minutes. Each questioner has a right of reply of one minute and the duration of his reply is subtracted from the overall time of his group. However, the time for the minister’s answer is not deducted from his group’s overall time.
The two largest groups, the UMP and the SRC, have 18 minutes overall and this allows them to ask 9 questions or 6 if they are followed by a reply. The two smaller groups, the GDR and the NC, have 6 minutes overall and this enables them to ask three questions or 2 if the right to reply is used.
The groups alternately suggest the name of the minister liable to be asked questions and the final decision is taken by the Conference of Presidents. In practice, the procedure may concern a minister being questioned on the whole of the policy of his ministry or one or several ministers being questioned on a specific aspect of the Government’s policy.
II. – WRITTEN QUESTIONS
This procedure, for which provision is made in the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly, also represents an individual prerogative of the M.P.s. It is the only parliamentary procedure of this kind which takes place outside the framework of the plenary sitting and whose results come at a later date.
Written questions are asked by an M.P. to a minister. Only those dealing with the general policy of the Government are asked to the Prime Minister.
Written questions must be drafted briefly and be limited to those elements absolutely essential for the understanding of the question. They must include no accusation of a personal nature regarding any person mentioned. In addition, the principles of separation of powers and immunity of the Head of State prohibit the author from calling into question the actions of the President of the Republic.
The draft of the written question is then presented to the President of the National Assembly who in turn notifies the Government. Since the beginning of the current term of Parliament, M.P.s table their questions electronically using the specialized internet portal. The written questions are published each week, both during and outside sessions, in a special supplement of the Journal officiel which includes the answers of ministers to previously asked questions. These answers must be published in the two months following the publication of the questions.
On account of its easy use and because of the fact that it has no limit, the written questions procedure is very popular. It allows the M.P.s to question ministers on issues often directly concerning their constituents, when they so desire (even during recess) and as often as they so wish. The first consequence of this has been an unbridled increase in the number of written questions: the total has risen from 3 700 written questions tabled in 1959, to 12 000 in 1994 and to 25 300 in 2008.
To some extent, it can be said that the procedure has been the victim of its own success since, faced with this “tidal wave”, the Government has been experiencing growing difficulties in replying within the statutory time limits.
Several initiatives have been taken in order to remedy this problem:
- The publication at the top of each supplement to the Journal officiel of the list of questions, published two months previously and which have remained unanswered;
- The mention in the Journal officiel under the heading of the relevant minister, of the questions which have not received a reply after three months and whose author requests that they be re-asked;
- The twice-yearly publication in the Journal officiel of the statistics, per minister, regarding answers to written questions;
- The implementation of a procedure called ‘highlighted questions’. Each week, during the session, the chairmen of the political groups choose a small number of questions (around twenty according to a proportional distribution chart) from amongst those written questions which have remained unanswered beyond the statutory limit (i.e. two months). These questions are highlighted in the Journal officiel and ministers commit themselves to answering them within ten days. This commitment has always been respected, with only a few exceptions, since the introduction of this procedure in 1994.
- Although the deadlines for answering are far from always being met, at the end of the XIIth term of Parliament, the overall percentage of replies per written question was 94.4%.
In addition, it should be noted that the replies to such questions have no legal status and do not bind the administration except in fiscal matters where they are considered as the expression of the administrative interpretation of the texts.
During the 2008-2009 session (from October 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009) 22 299 written questions were asked, of which 18 206 obtained an answer and 556 were ‘highlighted’.
The Questions Unit has the role of recording the written questions, checking their admissibility (for instance, it makes contacts with the authors when a draft is too long or contains personal accusations).
The possibility of carrying out question and answer searches on the internet site of the National Assembly (section- “contrôle, évaluation, information - questions écrites et orales” or “monitoring, assessment – written and oral questions”) represents a very precious instrument of documentation which is open to M.P.s, administration and the general public.