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THE LEGISLATURE

Under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, the legislature's powers were reduced compared to those existing under the Fourth Republic. The agenda of the legislature is strongly influenced by the government, which can demand an up-or-down vote on legislation or even win its adoption without an actual vote. The president can dissolve the National Assembly before the end of its five-year term, as has happened five times since the inauguration of the Fifth Republic. At the same time, despite its diminished powers, the National Assembly can cause the government to fall if an absolute majority of the total Assembly membership votes to censure.

Parliament is the legislature: that it, it has the power to make laws. The National Assembly currently consists of 577 deputies at least 23 years of age, who are elected for a five-year term by direct universal suffrage. At the time of election, a substitute is also elected for each deputy, to replace him or her in case of death or resignation. The National Assembly is led by a president elected by the deputies for the duration of a specific legislature (in theory five years).

Under a 2003 law, to reflect demographic changes, the number of senators increased to 346 by 2010. The Senate consists of 321 senators (296 for metropolitan France, 13 for overseas departments and territories, and 12 for French nationals abroad), aged at least 35 years, who are elected for nine years by indirect universal suffrage: that is, by deputies, departmental (county) councillors and municipal (district) councillors. The Senate represents the territorial units of the Republic. The Senate also has a president. The President of the Senate may temporarily execute the duties of the President of the Republic in the case of death or resignation. As regards legislation, the Senate is essentially a forum for reflection and proposals. If the Senate disagrees with the National Assembly, it is the National Assembly which has the final power of decision.

In France, the President has the power to dissolve parliament upon consultation with the Prime Minister and the Presidents of the two houses.61 This power was originally intended either as a way of resolving a serious crisis by testing the opinion of the people, or as a way of deciding a disagreement with the lower house, but dissolution has only been used twice for such reasons (1962 and 1968). On other occasions it has been used by the President to increase his support in parliament. In 1981 and 1988 dissolution was declared by the President at the beginning of his term so that he would have a majority in the lower house to support his policies, and in 1997 to bring forward an election to a time considered more advantageous. As a result, the French parliamentary terms appear to be only nominally fixed.

PASSING STATUTES

The Government and Members of Parliament alike have the right to initiate statutes which are called Government bills (projets de loi) and Members' bills (propositions de loi). These bills are introduced in either the National Assembly or the Senate. Government and Members' bills are referred for consideration to committees specially set up for the purpose. All bills are considered in both assemblies with a view to the adoption of an identical text. If, as a result of disagreement between the two assemblies, it has proved impossible to adopt a bill after two readings by each assembly, the Prime Minister may convene a joint committee composed of an equal number (seven) of members of each assembly, to propose a text on the provisions still under discussion. If the joint committee does not succeed in adopting a common text, the Government may ask the National Assembly to make a final decision. The final text is transmitted to the Government, but it is the President of the Republic who promulgates the Act.

“cumul des mandats”

The law on the non-cumulation of mandates entered into force in 2017 and forced certain elected officials to oblige make a choice of offices. Many parliamentarians announced that they would choose their mandate as mayor or elected regional or departmental. It took three years for the law, enacted in February 2014, to become effective. In 2012, no fewer than 476 out of 577 deputies had at least one other elective mandate. Five years later, their number had shrunk considerably, so there were only 134 to be affected.

Despite efforts to "decentralise" France, it remained one of the most centralised developed countries in the world. Its multi-layered administrative units with a local government - colloquially dubbed mille-feuille after the many-layered puff pastry - consist of: around 36,000 communes headed by a municipal council and a mayor, grouped in 96 départements, headed by a conseil général (general council) and its president, grouped in 13 régions (recently reduced from 22), headed by a regional council and its president.

The way in which MPs accumulated multiple-offices is worthy of particular attention, in that it was a particularly deep-seated and characteristic feature of the French political system. The “cumul des mandats” (accumulation of offices) was an integral part of the history of French political life and became increasingly widespread over time. The proportion of MPs who held multiple positions in office nearly doubled from 1958 to 1988, going from 49 to 96%.

In the National Assembly in July 2013, 81% of MPs held at least one other mandate. Far, far away, from all other Western democracies, where this rate generally does not even reach 20%. In 2017: according to the counts of Liberation, there were still 175 MEPs mayors in January, 30% of the quota, 93 from Republicans (about half of their parliamentary group) and 51 among the Socialists (18%).

Parliamentary politicians might be both mayors and senators, députés and general council presidents, EU parliament members and mayors and other combinations. It was possible in some circumstances to hold up to four different paid mandates at once. Jacques Chirac managed to combine the posts of prime minister and mayor of Paris.

Although French laws restricted the number of positions that could be exercised simultaneously, this practice was nonetheless a French anomaly. The case is very different in other Western democracies where this practice is either illegal or frowned upon. The cumulation of mandates was unpopular in the eyes of many of the electorate, to the point that Nicolas Sarkozy had made its cancellation a major campaign argument during the primary of the right. As many as 91% of the French were in favor of the prohibition of the accumulation of elective mandates among politicians, according to an Elabe poll.

The cumulation of mandates was hardly defensible: it resulted in record absenteeism and multiple conflicts of interest . Most parliamentarians behaved like local super-elected officials. The additional salaries were always handy. The cumulators profit from their double cap to obtain advantages in favor of their fief. But a parliamentarian who really did his job had an agenda worthy of a CEO and cannot at the same time direct a local authority. In fact, most parliamentarians devoted only two days each week to their national mandates.

After a seven-month parliamentary tour, the National Assembly approved on 22 January 2014 by 313 votes against 225 the bill prohibiting, from 2017, deputies and senators to exercise a local executive function. The new legislation prohibited any parliamentarian - a deputy, a senator and a member of the European Parliament - from simultaneously exercising another local executive mandate - mayor, deputy mayor, president or vice-president of intermunicipality, general council and council regional. This law covers the 577 French deputies, 348 senators and 74 MEPs. Nothing prevented them from continuing to be municipal, departmental or regional councilors.




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