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Government, The Legislature

The French parliament is divided into two houses, the 577-member National Assembly and the 321-member Senate. As the legislative branch of government, parliament is engaged primarily in the debate and adoption of laws. Legislation relating to government revenues and expenditures is especially important. The other principal duty of parliament is to oversee the government’s exercise of executive authority, although this oversight capacity was restricted somewhat by the 1958 constitution.

The members of the National Assembly are directly elected for five-year terms. Candidates for the National Assembly are elected by majority vote in single-member electoral districts. Runoff elections are required if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. Candidates who win at least 12.5 percent of the first round vote are eligible to run in second round. Members of the Senate are elected indirectly for nine-year terms by an electoral college. One-third of the Senate is elected every three years.

In principle, the National Assembly and the Senate share equal legislative power. In practice, however, legislative authority is tilted to the National Assembly, since the Senate may delay, but not prevent, the passage of legislation. If the two chambers disagree on a bill, final decision rests with the National Assembly, which may either accept the Senate’s version or, after a specified period, readopt its own. The Economic and Social Council acts in an advisory capacity on economic and budgetary matters to the National Assembly and the government. It consists of representatives from groups of workers and employers and from professional and cultural organizations.

The constitution of the Fifth Republic introduced two distinctive measures intended to streamline the legislative process. The first measure granted the government the authority to demand an up-or-down vote on an entire bill or any portion of a bill, in either chamber. This reduces the opportunity for members of parliament to propose endless amendments to bills they oppose. The second measure authorizes the government to win adoption of a bill in the National Assembly without an actual vote. To do so, the government announces that it considers rejection of the bill to be tantamount to a vote of no confidence in the government. If opponents of the bill fail to submit and win a majority vote on a motion of no confidence, the bill is adopted.

Laws must be promulgated by the French president to take effect. The president may ask parliament to reconsider a law or any of its articles, and parliament must honor the request. The president may also request the Constitutional Council to rule on the law’s constitutionality. In such cases the law may not be implemented until the court has rendered its judgment. Prior to the Fifth Republic, laws adopted by parliament were not subject to judicial review.

The parliamentary year was traditionally restricted to two separate sessions that ran from October to December and from April to June. In 1995 the constitution was amended to provide a nine-month parliamentary session to run continuously from October to June. In addition, the constitution permits the National Assembly to censure the government in a motion passed by an absolute majority of assembly members. Sponsors of failed motions of censure are barred from introducing similar motions during the same session.

 

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