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File n° 59
The International Activities of the National Assembly
I.– PARLIAMENT AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS : A DELICATE COUPLING
The question has always been asked, right from the beginning of French parliamentary history, as to whether Parliament could be an actor in foreign policy. By setting up a committee “tasked with being aware of the treaties and external relations of France in order to inform the Assembly”, the assemblies of the Revolution gave a first answer to this question without dismissing two basic objections: the risk of treading on the powers of the Executive and that of bringing to light matters which often bore the stamp of confidentiality. This conundrum was summed up by Eugène Pierre, the Secretary General of the Chamber of Deputies, at the very beginning of the 20th Century, in his treatise on electoral and parliamentary political law, written in 1902: “negotiating cannot be in the hands of the many and matters which deal with the relations of a people and its neighbours cannot be handled in the uproar of a deliberative assembly...true principles require a Government to have its hands unshackled for all diplomatic negotiations but it must never commit its signature, which is that of the Nation, definitively, without the prior assent of the representatives of the Nation”.
It is certainly true that diplomacy is, in essence, a kingly function, but it is also the case that Parliament has gradually entered this field to the extent that the concept of “parliamentary diplomacy” was born.
This is indeed an ambiguous and deceptive notion as it appears to imply that an autonomous or parallel diplomacy may develop within Parliament. However its success is witness in reality to the growing role played by international action in the activities of the Assembly. In fact, the international action of Parliament is bound up in the continuity of state diplomacy. It is a complement to such diplomacy and M.P.s are often the promoters or the authorities tasked with presenting it.
A combination of several factors can explain this development:
- European construction has gradually blurred the separation between internal and external affairs;
- The phenomenon of globalization has shown that problems encountered in many areas (the environment, health, transport, telecommunications, migratory movements etc.) go far beyond the national scale;
- Decolonization and the democratization of the countries of central and eastern Europe has had the consequence of strongly increasing the requests for inter-parliamentary cooperation;
- The greater participation of “civil society” in public affairs, including those dealing with the international stage, has obliged Parliaments to become more involved in the field of international relations so as not to leave the way totally free to NGOs, whose legitimacy can never equal that of elected assemblies.
II.– THE ACTORS OF THE INTERNATIONAL ACTIVITY OF THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY
1. – The president of the National Assembly
The President of the National Assembly is one of the most important political figures of the Republic. He meets with a very large number of foreign guests in his residence at the Hôtel de Lassay: Heads of State or of Government officially invited by the Republic, presidents of parliamentary assemblies of foreign countries, leaders of international organizations, ambassadors posted to Paris, emblematic opponents of certain regimes, etc. For example, in 2008, the President of the National Assembly granted meetings to twenty-five presidents of parliamentary assemblies, five Heads of State or of Government and six other eminent personalities.
The President may even invite certain guests to take the floor in the Chamber (this privilege is reserved to Heads of State or of Government, the Secretary General of the United Nations and to the President of the European Commission). However up until 1993 (with the notable exception of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1919) it was not a parliamentary custom for a foreign Head of State to speak at the rostrum in the National Assembly. However Mr. Philippe Séguin, then President of the National Assembly, with the agreement of the Bureau, brought a real sea-change that year by inviting the King of Spain to deliver a speech in the Chamber. He was followed, among others, by the U.S. President Bill Clinton, King Hassan II of Morocco, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the President of the Spanish Council Jose Luis Zapatero, and the President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso. To this day, 16 eminent foreign personalities have thus spoken at the rostrum of the National Assembly.
The President of the National Assembly may also be tasked with representing the President of the Republic at foreign ceremonies or with leading diplomatic missions in his name. In 1992, for instance, the President of the National Assembly thus brought a message to Japan to clear up the misunderstanding created by the words of the then Prime Minister. Similarly, in 1995, the President of the National Assembly, upon the request of the President of the Republic, visited Algeria so as to help to put an end to the blocking of relations between the two countries.
He may also, of his own accord, launch important initiatives in the area of international relations such as the leading of missions abroad. In 2009, for instance, the President of the National Assembly held a meeting with the President of the People’s Republic of China while on a visit to China. He signed an inter-parliamentary cooperation agreement with the People’s National Assembly. The chairmen of political groups of the Assembly take part in certain of these missions (in Turkey in 2005, in the Near East in 2009). Other examples of initiatives could be mentioned: the joint meeting of the Bundestag and the French National Assembly in the Chamber of the Congress at the Château of Versailles in January 2003 or the speech by the President of the National Assembly before the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies in October 2009.
It should, in addition, be noted that, in the field of inter-parliamentary relations, the President of the National Assembly automatically chairs several parliamentary delegations to international parliamentary assemblies or associations (the Interparliamentary Union, the Parliamentary Assembly of Francophonie) and in this capacity takes part in the more important sessions of these bodies. He thus opened the XXXVth annual session of the APF which was held in Paris, at his invitation, in July 2009. Furthermore, bodies bringing together presidents of assemblies meet now quite regularly (meeting of the Presidents of the Parliamentary Assemblies of the Member States of the European Union, meeting of the Presidents of the Parliamentary Assemblies of the countries of the G8, meeting of the Presidents of the Assemblies of the member countries of the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue known as the “5+5”).
2.– The Bureau of the National Assembly
Placed under the authority of a vice-president of the Assembly, a delegation in charge of international relations was set up several years ago within the Bureau of the National Assembly.
Its main role is to examine the decisions of the Bureau concerning the annual programme of visits and receptions by friendship groups and to approve the cooperation programmes planned with foreign Parliaments.
The Foreign Affairs Committee is clearly the central element in the international activities of the Assembly. Its main activities consist of:
- Examining bills authorizing the ratification of treaties and international agreements;
- Interviewing leading French and foreign figures;
- Setting up fact-finding missions on issues dealing with international relations and France’s foreign policy (e.g. fact-finding missions have recently been set up on the situation in Kosovo, the Mediterranean Union, Iran and the geo-political balance in the Middle East or France’s African policy);
- Providing an opinion on the friendship groups and study groups with an international dimension which it is planned to set up;
However the Foreign Affairs Committee does not have a monopoly on international questions. The Finance Committee thus examines the funds provided to “External State Action” missions, “Public Aid for Development” missions and “Loans to Foreign States” missions, the Defence Committee has strategic questions in its remit, the Economic Affairs Committee deals with problems linked to foreign trade and the Law Committee examined in 2006, a law on French immigration/emigration policy.
Furthermore, the European Affairs Committee, in addition to its remit concerning the examination of community instruments, also studies issues dealing with the foreign policy of the Union and those concerning enlargement.
4.– Friendship groups and study groups with an international dimension
There are 165 friendship groups and they represent the cornerstone of bilateral inter-parliamentary relations. Their first aim is, in fact, to create links between French and foreign parliamentarians.
These friendship groups interview various figures in Paris: ambassadors representing the country of the “friend” Parliament, diplomats, university professors, journalists and specialists of the geopolitics, economics or culture of the country. They organize missions to their counterpart Parliament and receive foreign parliamentary delegations. They can also serve as a basis for inter-parliamentary or decentralized cooperation programmes.
There are three criteria for the recognition of friendship groups: the existence of a Parliament, the existence of diplomatic relations with France and the membership to the United Nations of the candidate country. Study groups with an international dimension (GEVI) which were introduced in 1981, provide a framework which is adapted to the situation of countries which do not fulfil all the required criteria for the setting-up of a friendship group. At present, there are nine of them.
III.– CATEGORIES OF INTERNATIONAL ACTIVITIES AT THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY
1.– The classic activities of the National Assembly applied to foreign policy
The National Assembly has gradually entered the field of international questions to the extent that they are no longer considered as a specific area. The Assembly therefore carries out, in this sector, all of its traditional tasks:
- It passes laws authorizing the ratification of treaties;
- It approves the budget concerning the foreign policy of the State;
- It monitors the action of the Executive in this area. It can do this when the Government makes statements on foreign policy issues (the latter may even make the outcome of such a debate a question of confidence, as was the case in 1991 at the time of the first Gulf war), through questions asked by M.P.s (in 2008, 21 questions to the Government and more than 400 written questions concerned the Minister of Foreign Affairs), by setting up commissions of inquiry on international subjects (such as that in 2007 dealing with the conditions of the freeing of the Bulgarian nurses and doctor and the recent Franco-Libyian agreement) or through fact-finding missions;
- In addition, since the constitutional revision of 2008, Parliament must provide its authorization for any extension beyond four months of an intervention by French armed forces abroad. In the case of a disagreement with the Senate, the National Assembly has the final say. It may appear paradoxical to present this new provision among the classic tasks of the National Assembly in the field of foreign policy but it must be underlined that although this is a new prerogative granted to Parliament in France, it is not the case for numerous foreign Parliaments which have already possessed such a power for many years.
2.– The specific international activities of the National Assembly
There are several of these:
- The carrying-out of inter-parliamentary relations which occur either in a bilateral framework through the friendship groups or in the multilateral framework of the Interparliamentary Union. The latter was set up in 1889 and today includes Parliaments from over 153 countries;
- The implementation of inter-parliamentary cooperation which enables the National Assembly to provide technical aid to Parliaments which request its support;
- The participation of the National Assembly in the work of international parliamentary assemblies of which it is a member: the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Assembly of the Western European Union (WEU), the Parliamentary Assembly of NATO (PA-NATO), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (PA-OSCE), the Parliamentary Assembly of Francophonie (APF), the Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly (EMPA), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean (PAM), or an observer: the Parliamentary Assembly of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (PABSEC);
- The participation of the National Assembly in election observation mechanisms. Nowadays, many elections are, at the request of the authorities of the countries concerned, observed by the international community.
As an emblematic institution of democracy, the National Assembly has a natural role to play in the observation process and this is even more the case given that the M.P.s who are members of it, know better than anyone else the wheels of the electoral process.
For the National Assembly to take part in the observation of an election, several criteria must be met:
- The authorities of the country concerned must have made a specific request for such participation either directly to the National Assembly through the French embassy or through various international organizations (the U.N., the European Union, the Council of Europe etc.);
- The elections must be free and subject to the rule of universal suffrage. This implies the respect of the principle “one man, one vote”, the existence of a multi-party system, the existence of a free and independent press and free and equal access to the media. In general these principles are claimed to exist in all states – one of the aims of the mission is to check the reality of the situation;
- The political importance of the ballot is also taken into account. This is a highly subjective criterion and includes being aware of such notions as the historic or symbolic meaning of the vote, the state of relations with the country in question, the disputed nature of the ballot and the risks of fraud which might be encountered;
- In addition the approval of the Minister of Foreign Affairs must be obtained;
- A guarantee must be given that it will be possible to follow all voting operations without any constraint.
- The French National Assembly is more and more often requested to take part in electoral observation missions. Since the beginning of the 1990s, French M.P.s have participated in nearly 200 such missions.