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The Legislative Branch of the French Republic: The National Assembly & the Senate

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  • 0:02 French Legislative Branch
  • 0:36 Principles
  • 2:54 National Assembly
  • 4:37 Senate
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the legislative branch of the French Republic, a bicameral branch of government whose power has grown over the past half-century.

French Legislative Branch

One of the main underlying theories of democracy is that political power emanates from the people. Each person, as the theory goes, is just as entitled to a role in the political process as everyone else. But could you imagine if we tried to fit all 330 million Americans into the Capitol Building at the same time?! It would not work out too well. That's why every so often we elect delegates to represent our interests in government. These delegates usually occupy the legislative branch. In France, they have a similar system, and in this lesson, we will discover the ins and outs of the French legislative branch.

Principles

The French legislative branch, where the people of France's representatives meet to conduct the people's role in governance, is a bicameral institution. This means that it is composed of two different houses: the National Assembly and the Senate. Bicameralism, in general, is usually put in place as a safeguard against the tyranny which could occur if a single assembly was dominated by a radical group or party. In the French case, bicameralism was also utilized by the 1958 Constitution to diffuse the legislative body's power against that of the French president, whose power the Constitution greatly enhanced.

The French legislative branch is also ruled by the principle of rationalized parliamentarism. In order to understand this term, it's important to know that during France's Fourth Republic, from 1946-1958, the government was wracked with instability, as governing coalitions broke down rapidly and repeatedly, causing numerous elections. To combat this problem, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic sought to eliminate many of the parliamentary procedures and tactics political parties utilized to attack the regimes of their opponents.

Therefore, rationalized parliamentarism is defined in France as a set of strict rules and regulations on Parliament and parliamentarians which restricts the role of Parliament and forces it to govern quickly and effectively. For example, the French Parliament has a set calendar for each session and for the year, which cannot be deviated from. Parliament's agenda and the issues it takes up rarely come from parliamentarians themselves but are more often set by the government. Proposed amendments to laws and other bills moving through Parliament must meet a very specific set of guidelines or they are forbidden. Furthermore, the French Parliament is allowed to have only six standing committees at any one time.

Despite these somewhat draconian measures placed on the legislative branch at first, Parliament's role has expanded since 1958. In 1995, for example, Parliament earned the right to sit for one nine-month session, rather than the two, three-month sessions originally imposed in 1958. Perhaps the most important innovation came in 2008, when a revision of the Constitution distinctly strengthened the French Parliament, giving it more power over legislative procedures and the legislative session's agenda itself, giving Parliament greater power to check the power of the president and the French executive branch.

National Assembly

The first of the two houses which make up the French legislative branch is the National Assembly. The National Assembly is France's premier representative institution and the most powerful of the legislative branches. Its 577 members sit in the Palais Bourbon in Paris. Of these 577 representatives, 555 represent a roughly equal proportion of France proper - about 100,000 inhabitants.

The remaining 22 representatives represent overseas territories and dependencies like New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Eleven of these representatives are also devoted to representing French nationals who live abroad. Representatives are elected every five years, in a two-round system. In the first round, voters can vote for any candidate. A second round occurs if no candidate garners 50% of the vote, and in this round only the top two vote receivers from the past election are allowed to stand as candidates.

As mentioned before, the National Assembly's role has expanded over time. It is allowed to amend bills proffered by the government and also allowed to introduce its own legislation. In lawmaking, the National Assembly is more powerful than the French Senate, and in the case of a disagreement over a certain clause in a law or the entire law itself, the National Assembly generally gets its way, especially if that opinion is supported by the president.

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