April 21, 2024

Understanding France legislative elections

Who is elected?

After the presidential elections the French go back to the ballot two months after to elect 577 lawmakers to the National Assembly.

French voters will elect 577 lawmakers from as many districts to sit in the lower-house National Assembly in June. The lawmakers are known as deputies and sit for five-year terms, voting for (or against) legislation in a semi-circular chamber – known colloquially as the hémicycle.

Beyond lawmaking, deputies are also tasked with monitoring government activity. They can hold cabinet ministers to account, in writing or orally, during designated question periods on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, be it with questions on local matters in the districts they represent or on national policy. They can also demand that parliamentary inquiry committees be convened to enlighten legislators on a particular issue.

The number of National Assembly deputies has changed over time to track with population shifts nationwide. For the purposes of the upcoming legislative elections, seats are divided by tranches of the population, known as circonscriptions or constituencies. Each is meant to represent 125,000 residents. France is currently divided into 566 legislative districts, plus the 11 more added in 2012 to provide representation for some 2.5 million French citizens resident abroad.

How does it work?

Deputies are elected by direct universal suffrage, which means every French adult registered to vote can cast a ballot. In each district, the vote takes place in two rounds, one week apart. But if one candidate scores an absolute majority, more than 50 percent of the vote as well as 25 percent of registered voters, the individual is elected without the need for a second round.

Every candidate who wins the support of at least 12.5 percent of registered voters can advance to the second round. If only one candidate hits that mark, the next-highest-scoring candidate nevertheless gets promoted to the second-round duel. If no candidate manages it, the top two vote-getters advance regardless.

Who can run for a seat?

To stand in France’s legislative elections, a candidate must be a French national aged 18 or older. But there are caveats: Courts can issue penalties to offenders that render them ineligible to run for elected office. Certain high-level public servants (prefects, magistrates, school superintendents) aren’t allowed to run in the districts where they held those positions for a specific period of time. Individuals under guardianship aren’t allowed to run. Since 2017, deputies aren’t allowed to combine that job with other elected offices such as mayor or the presidency or vice-presidency of a region, department, or grouping of towns or cities; they can stand as candidates, but must decide which mandate to keep and which to quit once elected.

Having any connection to a particular district isn’t required before running to represent it, and a candidate doesn’t have to establish residency. “Deputies are invested with a national mandate. Although elected in one constituency, each deputy represents the nation as a whole,” the National Assembly website states. How such “parachuted in” candidates play with the voters they’ll need to persuade to get elected is another matter.

What is a parliamentary group and its importance?

Any deputy elected can decide to join the political group of his or her choice. To form an official parliamentary group, the threshold is 15 deputies (down from 20 before 2009). In general, groups are formed according to lawmakers’ political allegiances. But it does happen that deputies from multiple parties band together to form a parliamentary group to meet that golden threshold.

The stakes are indeed high, politically and financially. Having a group is a prerequisite to bringing any real influence to bear on the chamber’s debates or the workings of the Assembly. In practical terms, a parliamentary group is allocated more speaking time to query government ministers during question periods. It can also request that a session be suspended. Financially speaking, only parliamentary groups receive Assembly funding to cover their expenses, allowing them to take on parliamentary staff. And those groups alone enjoy access to facilities like parliamentary offices and conference rooms.

Higher thresholds open doors to yet more coveted privileges, which are generally only accessible to France’s major political parties. Some 58 deputies are required to issue a no-confidence motion, which launches a debate and entails a vote. Sixty deputies from one party are needed to refer a law to the Constitutional Council to rule on whether it complies with France’s fundamental principles. Meanwhile, a full 185 deputies are required to request the holding of a shared-initiative referendum. But before any such referendum can be held, the proposal must first garner the signatures of 4 million French voters.

What is a Cohabitation?

Simply put, “cohabitation” is a power-sharing scenario wherein France’s president and prime minister hail from different sides of the political fence. It occurs when, after legislative elections, the National Assembly is dominated by a party other than the president’s own party.

Cohabitation has happened three times in France’s modern political era since 1958;

  • Twice under Socialist president François Mitterrand, with conservative prime ministers Jacques Chirac and Édouard Balladur serving from 1986 to 1988 and 1993 to 1995, respectively.
  • in 1997-2002 with president Jacques Chirac with socialist Lionel Jospin

Incase of cohabitation what does the president do?

During periods of cohabitation, the president is obliged to name a prime minister from the new lower-house majority. The head of state and head of government must “coexist” to run the country. The situation is disadvantageous to a president, who loses decision-making power over domestic matters as the prime minister’s majority in parliament hews to its own legislative agenda. The president has to share prerogatives with the prime minister and cannot compel the latter to resign. A president does, however, maintain the power to dissolve parliament and trigger new legislative elections 

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