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?