Explainer: What is France’s Assemblée nationale and how does it work?

We look at how laws are passed, the role of the House’s president, parliamentary groups and a clause in French law that allows the government to bypass parliament

The Assemblée national is housed at the Palais Bourbon in Paris’ seventh arrondissement
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The Assemblée nationale is France’s lower house of parliament – for British readers, the equivalent of the House of Commons.

France’s upper house is the Senate. These two assemblées make up France’s parliament and both have a role to play in passing laws.

The Assemblée nationale is made up of 577 MPs, known as députés, who are voted in by the French public during legislative elections. These elections take place every five years following presidential elections.

The MPs meet at the Palais Bourbon in Paris’ seventh arrondissement.

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In contrast, the 348 senators (sénateurs) are voted in through an indirect election. In this case, 162,000 elected officials around France, such as MPs, regional and departmental counsellors etc., vote for their preferred senator. The senators are given a mandate of six years.

They meet at the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris’ sixth arrondissement.

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Role of the Assemblée nationale

French MPs are involved in both proposing new laws and voting on draft bills.

They can, for example, propose a proposition de loi (a draft bill). Senators can also propose draft bills. If an MP tables a bill, it must first be discussed in the Assemblée nationale while if a senator tables a bill it must first be discussed in the Senate.

MPs also vote on projets de loi. These are bills proposed by the government. They must pass through both houses of parliament before they can become law.

MPs also have the power to propose amendments to bills.

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Laws are passed in France once bills have been approved by both houses of parliament. A bill is, for example, first discussed in the lower house. If approved, it is sent to the Senate for debate. The senators will often propose amendments and so the bill will be sent back to the Assemblée nationale.

This back-and-forth process is known as la navette parlementaire (parliamentary shuttle).

If no agreement can be reached then a mixed parliamentary committee is set up to find a compromise. If that fails still, then it is the Assemblée nationale that has the final say.

What is the role of the president of the Assemblée nationale

The president of the Assemblée nationale is voted in during the first parliamentary seance following the legislative elections.

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The president’s job is to chair debates in the House, ensure order is kept and rules are followed and generally ensure that the House functions. Again for British readers, this role is something akin to the speaker of the House of Commons.

The president also has other powers.

For example, he or she appoints three members of the constitutional council (Conseil constitutionnel). The president can also refer bills to the constitutional council if they think that they could be breaching France’s constitution. Finally, the president is also consulted before any dissolution of the Assemblée nationale.

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Parliamentary groups

The Assemblée nationale is made up of various parliamentary groups, usually based on MPs’ political persuasions. These groups - that can be made up of MPs from the same party or several parties - are officially recognised and receive funds as well as special rights.

A minimum of 15 MPs is required to form a parliamentary group. There are groups that are classed as being “opposition” or those in favour of the government.

Article 49.3

Article 49.3 of France’s constitution allows a government to push through a law without it being subject to a vote.

This process is led by the prime minister who must have the support of his or her government.

This power can only be used once per parliamentary session, a period that normally lasts for roughly nine months between October and June.

MPs have the right to contest a law being pushed through with article 49.3 by tabling a motion de censure. This must be brought within 24 hours of article 49.3 being triggered.

The motion de censure must be backed by at least one tenth of the members of the Assemblée nationale. If the motion is rejected, the draft bill becomes a law.

Article 49.3 has been used 87 times since 1958, with the latest time being in 2020 when former prime minister Édouard Philippe used it to try to push through a law linked to pension reforms. This proposal was ultimately abandoned due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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