Adapt or Perish. The Social and Material Conditions of the Transformations of the French National Assembly Over the Past Century

Jonathan Chibois of EHESS discusses recent technological innovations in the French National Assembly within the context of longer, historical trends in parliamentary reform. 

The French National Assembly declares that it is experiencing a pivotal moment in its existence. Since the beginning of 2010, the successive presidents of the Assembly have displayed the same ambition to rejuvenate the institution. They indeed have been proclaiming that they intend to respond to the citizens’ dissatisfaction, who feel excluded from state affairs, and deceived by elected representatives, whose motivations do not appear as impartial. The presidents have also insisted on securing the independence of legislative work from the authority of the executive. The beginning of the current legislature in 2017 was marked by strong actions in this regard. Five work groups, bringing together parliamentarians from all sides, were set up to propose the most relevant reforms that should be implemented for the institution, on such central issues as, the status of MPs, the status of their staff, the monitoring and evaluation of public policies, the rights of the opposition, etc.

It should also be noted that this concern for transformation is closely linked to the emergence of digital tools. For instance, an online amendment tabling application was imposed upon MPs to improve the efficiency of the Assembly’s work (2007). Furthermore, to make parliamentary debates more visible, a video on demand (VOD) portal dedicated to parliamentary activities was made available online in 2010. One recent example is in order to promote the voice of citizens, an electronic petitions system is close to being deployed on the Assembly’s website (2020). There are many such examples and they are not original: all these initiatives can also be observed in other parliaments around the world.

As a matter of fact, like its counterparts, the French National Assembly is presently attempting to exploit the opportunities offered by digital tools to reinvent itself, both to solidify the link between the French people and their representatives, as well as to affirm its own place within state institutions. In such a perspective, the Assembly attempts to establish itself as the main guarantor of actual popular sovereignty, according to the original ideals of French democracy.  For this reason, one could indeed consider that the National Assembly might have “come of age”.

Elements of a socio-technical history of the Assembly

However, the results of my doctoral thesis challenge this claim. The current plan to modernize the National Assembly and to give it a new maturity does exist, but this is not the first to do so. It must be viewed with the context of a long series of targeted transformations that the Assembly has experienced throughout its history, since the Revolution. Hence the Assembly has decided that it must always redefine itself and its position. And each time, at least for the most significant of these transformations, it has had to integrate a new communications technology into its operations and procedures to deliver the transformation.

In recent decades, there have been at least three such transformation. One of these dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, absenteeism and non-involvement of MPs were the subject of constant controversies. To address these criticisms, the Assembly decided to invest in aiding MPs in their daily tasks, which it had never done previously, since each MP was expected to meet their own needs. The Assembly therefore expanded its real estate assets to offer them a personal office inside the Palais Bourbon, and allocated each a budget for recruiting a personal assistant. It committed itself to providing them with effective means of communication. For instance, the live coverage of “Questions to the Government” was introduced, following the example of the British Prime Minister’s Questions, so that ministers could be held accountable to the people and their elected representatives. Another example was the introduction of a videotex service, so that  information circulated better from the Palais Bourbon to MPs spread across the country.

Another transformation dates back to the late 1950s, when the current Constitution of the French Republic was drafted and adopted. The context was complex and controversial. Indeed, the previous constitution that France adopted at the end of the Second World War had proved incapable of ensuring stability of power, but on the contrary, deepened the political crisis linked to decolonization and the Algerian War. For this reason, the current constitution enshrines the superiority of executive power over legislative power, which certainly stabilized the balance of power, but forced Parliament to rethink its place and role in French society. It is in this context that, in this same period in the late 1950s, the Assembly replaced the traditional voting procedure by an electronic system. This system required MPs to use a personal key, and therefore be physically present in the Palais Bourbon to cast their votes, the essential prerequisite to fulfil their mission of controlling the government. It was also to counter the executive power that the Assembly opened its doors to television cameras, so as not to let the Government alone benefit from the former state monopoly on television and radio broadcasting.

The key transformation is even further back in time, the last two decades of the 19th century, at the time of the foundation of the Third Republic, which represents a watershed in French parliamentary history. Firstly, it was the moment when the state apparatus formally streamlined and structured itself, as we know it today. And secondly, it marked the introduction of the universal male suffrage for legislative elections, which opened up the Assembly to citizens from all social classes. In this context, the “work of representation” became more professional, turning into a full-time activity that could be carried out, not only by the wealthiest but by anyone. Questions regarding the efficiency and inequality of resources among MPs then arose, which led the Assembly to scrutinize their material and financial work conditions. Notable results were the introduction of a salary for MPs and also the installation of collective telephone devices at the Palais Bourbon. Such communication tools were very popular with MPs of all backgrounds, who found a means to connect their constituencies with Paris.

The transformation of the Assembly, a perpetual movement

During these three transformations (but not just them), the French parliament stood at a crossroads. The pressure exerted by a changing French society led the Assembly to adapt its terms of existence. At the end of the 19th century, French society indeed freed itself from a monarchy that had left little latitude for the legislative power, and Parliament was placed at the centre of the state. At the end of the 1950s, on the contrary, the new constitution significantly weakened legislative power. In the early 1980s, French society then grew increasingly suspicious of the parliamentary institution and tended to challenge its legitimacy to represent the people.

In each of these three transformations, the technical issues turned out to be central to the solution to overcome the crisis. This is mainly due to the positivist ideology that permeated French society, and even more its political staff and the administration of the state. The underlying idea was that political, social or institutional issues had to be solved by technical solutions, in the name of progress, neutrality and efficiency. It is therefore no coincidence that each time the Assembly has experienced an existential crisis, a technical innovation has arisen. Therefore, technical innovations became the favoured solutions.

But let us return to today’s so-called “digital revolution”; my purpose is not to play-down the Assembly’s current transformation. It is simply to point out that, profound as the modernization undertaken by the Assembly may seem, it will never finally solve the problem of its attachment to French society. The motivation underpinning the present-day transformation is just another cycle in a constantly evolving process, driven by the continuous evolution of French society itself. As a result of this process, Parliament must always advocate its legitimacy and protect the extent of its power of action, even though in France the principle of representative democracy is firmly established. Such a situation, as we have seen above, could be initiated by two different situations: on the one hand, the instability of the balance of state power, and, on the other hand, the evolution of citizens’ expectations.

Finally, my doctoral results have caused me to consider this institution from a new perspective. This whole process of transformation shows that the French National Assembly is not, in the long term, a rigid and fixed institution but, fundamentally a flexible and dynamic one. It is an important point, because the democratic ideology as well as the common sense continues to describe this institution as one of the unchanging pillars of our political system.

As a closing thought, I am now wondering about the ambivalence of such a strategy. Whereas the National Assembly’s authorities have always considered the latest communication tools as a means of ensuring the Assembly’s sustainability, it seems that they are perhaps blind to the fact that such tools can be a factor of the instability against which they seek to preserve themselves! Anthropology has indeed taught us that when a new communication technology offers solutions, it also brings about new working practices and processes and therefore, in the long run, new expectations that institutions cannot ignore (the manner in which Twitter has shaken up the parliamentary affairs in France is a good example of this). Might the French National Assembly not be sowing the seeds of its future crises by its totally reliance upon technical innovation? Might it be caught in a logic where ensuring its position as a state institution implies weakening it at the same time?

Jonathan Chibois is a researcher at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) and an associated researcher at the Interdisciplinary Institute of Contemporary Anthropology (IIAC).


Bedding Down, Treading Water and Taking Two Steps Forward: Gender Equality and the 2019-20 House of Commons Select Committee Elections

Stephen Holden Bates (University of Birmingham, UK)

Stephen McKay (University of Lincoln, UK)

Mark Goodwin (Coventry University, UK)

The results of the elections for the UK House of Commons Select Committees are out[1]!

The 2010 Wright Reforms, designed to increase the standing of Parliament in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, are now a decade old. One of the main reforms introduced was to alter the method of selection for House of Commons Select Committees[2] from one of appointment by party managers to one of election by the whole House (in the case of chairships) and by party caucuses (in the case of membership). This reform has been hailed by many as one of the reasons why select committees have become an ever more prominent and prestigious part of Parliament. There is also evidence that the reform has been good for some aspects of gender equality within the committee system, particularly in terms of female MPs becoming committee chairs[3]. Below we consider the outcomes of the latest round of select committee elections and argue that, in terms of female representation, they are a case of simultaneously bedding down, treading water and taking two steps forward.

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Social distancing meets political distancing: scrutiny in a digital parliament

The physical distancing at Westminster is also leading to increased political distancing of government from parliamentary scrutiny, writes David Judge. He explains that the latter has already been happening and is likely to continue, even after the social distancing measures are lifted. The blog was originally written for the LSE Politics and Policy page but has been kindly shared with the PSA Parliaments Specialist Group.

The technical and procedural complexities of transitioning to a virtual parliament, or a quasi-digital ‘hybrid’, have, understandably, been the main focus of attention at Westminster since the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis. Yet, underpinning the compelling need for digital dexterity and procedural innovativeness has been an unchallenged belief that ‘there is no substitute for parliamentary scrutiny … at this time of national crisis’.

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Bringing accountability to national governance: parliament interacting with independent oversight institutions

Franklin De Vrieze, Senior Governance Adviser at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy discusses the role played by independent oversight institutions in ensuring democratic accountability.

The federal Parliament of Belgium © Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers

As governance processes occur within a country’s political-economic and legal-constitutional context, bringing accountability to national governance cannot be left to those individuals and groups holding power. Independent oversight institutions have a specific role in strengthening accountability which is complementary to the oversight role of parliament. Because the relationship between parliament and independent oversight institutions is sub-optimal in many countries, this article discusses the issues shaping their relationship, outlining how to make it more productive.

When a country’s political system is centred around all powerful executive, can effective independent oversight institutions rebalance the power between the government and parliament and strengthen citizens’ confidence in the democratic system? When newly established independent oversight institutions are bringing more accountability to a state administration struggling to overcome decades of authoritarian rule, how can parliament effectively follow up on the reports of independent oversight institutions? These are the questions analysed in a new publication by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Parliament and independent oversight institutions, which informs this article.

Independent institutions: one term, different realities

Most countries have established a wide range of independent institutions. Reflecting on their power and mandate, we have identified, at least, four categories of independent institutions.

Firstly, there are autonomous public service providers, such as universities, academic institutions, statistical offices and national public broadcasters. In the UK, most of them are Arm’s Length Bodies (ALBs). Their independence from the political institutions of the state is essential to enable them to deliver the very services which they are created for.

A second category of independent institutions are the independent regulatory agencies, which are mainly economic regulatory bodies. Examples are financial market regulators, telecommunications regulators, energy regulators, aviation regulatory agencies, etc. Following the privatisation of former state monopolies, the regulatory agencies have grown in numbers worldwide.

Thirdly, Constitutional Courts, Supreme Courts and other judicial authorities can play a critical oversight role in judicial review, ranging from determining the constitutionality of legislative acts and regulations to assessing the legal basis of government actions.

Fourthly, there are the independent oversight institutions (I.O.I.), whose mandate is to exercise oversight over the democratic functioning and integrity of the executive and the state administration. Examples of independent oversight institutions are supreme audit institutions, human rights–related oversight institutions including privacy and information commissions, anti-corruption agencies and electoral management bodies. In most jurisdictions, these institutions play an important governance role and have a high profile.

Parliament and independent oversight institutions (I.O.I.)

Because of their oversight role, I.O.I. have a natural relationship with parliaments. I.O.I. are extensions of the concept of separation of powers in the context of complex modern societies where, alone, legislatures do not have the time nor technical skills to follow all executive actions.

The specific nature of the relationship between I.O.I. and parliaments varies considerably, with a multitude of constitutional arrangements internationally and even within countries. While some I.O.I. do report directly to parliament, others might report to the executive, to another authority or to more than one institution. Even if not part of the judiciary, some I.O.I. may have quasi-judicial powers, such as the right to impose financial penalties or the right to sanction individuals or organisations that breach human rights.

Practices worldwide have revealed challenges when parliament is captured by interest groups, and thus where parliamentary engagement with I.O.I. is not geared towards strengthening oversight. Here a balance must be struck between defending the mandate and autonomy of the I.O.I., while not establishing a supra-state body that itself lacks accountability.

Another challenge can be the instrumentalisation of I.O.I. for specific elite agendas. There are many examples from authoritarian states where supposedly independent anti-corruption institutions are effectively used to gather incriminating material on current or potential opponents, that can be used to threaten and restrict legitimate opposition.

Defining I.O.I. as outside of, and entirely independent from, the other branches of government can seem attractive at first because it puts them above interference. However, in practice, I.O.I. must have a legitimacy derived from somewhere, and parliament is the most appropriate institutional anchor. I.O.I. must have a legislative framework; only parliament can provide this by adopting the relevant legislation. The leadership of I.O.I. must be appointed. Who is to do so? If it is the government, then the body which is to be overseen is choosing its overseers; which constitutes a conflict of interest. The work of I.O.I. must carry weight and be responded to; who is to assure this? Of course, it would be possible to define institutions as accountable to some other body or bodies, such as a group of experts, or representatives of different institutions. But who decides which experts are to be selected, and on what grounds? Which bodies should make up a ‘college’ to govern an I.O.I.?

This is not to claim that parliament should be empowered to act arbitrarily. The great majority of countries have constitutions that limit the powers of all state institutions, including parliament, and governance in those few democratic states that do not have written constitutions is based on common codified principles that are effectively unwritten constitutions.

Neither do parliaments always make good decisions; often, decisions are shown in retrospect to have been based on misreading a situation, on a rush to judgment, or to respond to vocal pressure, such as campaigns organised by newspapers or interest groups. In cases of imperfect democracies and state capture, parliament may well misuse its relationship over I.O.I.. However, in these circumstances, it is quite possible – if not probable – than any alternative mechanism will also be susceptible to abuse, except perhaps where international trustees are brought in either as part of the selection process or as officers of I.O.I., but this raises questions of national ownership and long-term sustainability. Nevertheless, ultimately, parliaments and parliamentarians are accountable to citizens through elections.

The four “contact points”

Therefore, and based upon international best practices, WFD has identified that parliaments interact with I.O.I. in at least four distinct ways. They are the four “contact points” between parliaments and I.O.I.:

  • Determining the mandate, responsibilities and scope of work of the I.O.I. through legislation
  • Ensuring the institutions’ annual and other reports and their follow-up by parliament
  • Selecting / appointing / overseeing the Boards or the leadership of the I.O.I.
  • Reviewing or approving the I.O.I.’s budget and financial responsibilities.

For each of these four “contact points”, we can value the role of parliament as the institutional anchor towards I.O.I. and the substantial drawbacks for any other political actor taking that role.

On the first point, parliament in almost all countries is the main, often the only, institution entitled to wield legislative power. Therefore, a solid mandate for independent oversight institutions, if it is not grounded directly within the constitution, is established through legislation adopted in parliament.

Secondly, in most cases, parliament is the main body charged with receiving and following up on I.O.I. reports. Clearly, findings of oversight institution reports need to be addressed by the executive. But for this reason, it cannot be the executive that is the arbiter as to whether the remedial measures it has taken in response to an independent oversight institution report are adequate. Without parliamentary follow-up, I.O.I. are powerless to take action such as changing laws and regulations to remediate problems.

Third, there are many models for the selection of I.O.I. members, but parliamentary nomination is the most common, whether directly or through confirmation of candidates nominated either by the executive or certain estates. In addition, clear criteria should be established for membership of the governing body of the institution, and the selection of members should be based on a transparent process, and membership should be for a multiyear period.

Fourth, determining the budget of I.O.I. normally occurs through the national budget process, where parliament both scrutinises the government’s budget proposal, including for I.O.I., and reviews and follow up on the supreme audit institution’s report on how that budget was spent. However, it is fair to state that, in practice, I.O.I. frequently lack the financial (and sometimes human) resources they need to function, even when financial autonomy is guaranteed in the constitution.

The following diagram represents parliament’s interacting with I.O.I. in the mentioned four contact points.

In most democratic systems, I.O.I. are fully or partially responsible to parliaments; leadership is chosen by parliament, and reports are submitted for follow-up to parliament. Parliaments, through their constitutional responsibilities for oversight, have the authority to ensure that I.O.I. recommendations are carefully reviewed by government and either implemented, or explanations provided as to why they should not be implemented. For I.O.I. to be fully effective, they need to be anchored within the overall governance process, so that their findings can be followed up to ensure that they are considered in reformed and improved programmes and policies. Whatever constitutional framework applies, a productive relationship between parliaments and I.O.I. improves the quality and transparency of governance and makes the democratic system more accountable.

Franklin De Vrieze is Senior Governance Adviser at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). His areas of expertise include Post-Legislative Scrutiny, financial accountability and independent oversight institutions. For more information follow Franklin on Twitter @FranklinDVrieze