How parliamentary groups structure French political life

Turmoil caused by the split of the New Popular Ecological and Social Union (Nupes) into four political groups, questions surrounding the allocation to opposition groups of certain key positions in the National Assembly (vice-presidencies, questures, presidency of the – very strategic – Finance Committee), reception of the presidents of the groups by the President of the Republic the day after the elections, then by the Prime Minister a few days before her speech on general policy… The unprecedented political situation resulting from the legislative elections of June 12 and 19 highlights the importance of parliamentary groups, structures largely unknown to the general public, as well as the issues related to their formation.

Parliamentary groups (also called political groups) are internal formations of the assemblies which bring together parliamentarians by political affinity. A parliamentary extension of a political party, these groups exist in all representative democracies that have deliberative assemblies.

Groups formed since the French Revolution

If the first "regroupings" of parliamentarians, which were not yet structured groups as we know them today, appeared in France as of the French Revolution, the birth of formations close to contemporary groups (first in institutional practice) date of the Third Republic.

Since then, the groups have been a central cog in the organization and operation of Parliament. From the start of the Ve Republic, they are moreover present in the National Assembly as in the Senate, the new regime being part of this point of view in line with previous parliamentary practices. However, the 1958 Constitution made no mention of it before its 2008 revision, which notably aimed to valorization of minority and opposition groups.

Of Parliament, the general public is mainly familiar with the public (or plenary) session. The public session corresponds legally to the formation allowing the deputies and the senators to exercise the competences attributed to the Parliament by the Constitution, namely the voting of the law, the control of the governmental action and the evaluation of the public policies.

But the decisions taken in plenary session are prepared upstream, within smaller formations, among which we must count the political groups. The latter also determine, very largely, the composition of the main organs of the National Assembly and the Senate.

A double imperative

The existence of groups within deliberative assemblies obeys a double imperative: political on the one hand, organizational on the other. On the political level, the groups allow parliamentarians who share the same ideas and common values ​​to discuss, to decide on the attitude to adopt vis-à-vis a text, or even on the action to be taken in relation to the government, upstream of the public session.

Concerning the organization of the assemblies, the groups participate in the composition of the main bodies of the National Assembly and the Senate, and sometimes even determine it. Thus the Conference of Presidents, which is the body competent to determine the agenda of the meetings pursuant to 48 article of the Constitution and where now, the presidential majority no longer being a majority (in the Assembly), the inclusion of texts of governmental origin could be, in the event of an alliance between the oppositions, partly hampered... The same applies to parliamentary committees, essential cogs in parliamentary work, where each group has a number of seats proportional to its membership, so that each committee faithfully reflects the political composition of the chamber.

The groups also intervene in the functioning of each chamber, both in the process of drawing up laws and in monitoring the government (distribution of speaking time, distribution of questions, etc.). They have sometimes important prerogatives in this area, such as the possibility (recognized to minority and opposition groups) of setting as a priority, in application of the aforementioned article 48 of the Constitution, the agenda for a day of sitting per month. The presidents of minority and opposition groups also have a “right to draw” which allows them to obtain the creation of a commission of inquiry or an information mission once per ordinary session.

It is understandable, in these circumstances, that the three formations of the electoral alliance carried by Jean-Luc Mélenchon (in addition to La France insoumise) wished not to "merge" into a single group: it was of course a question of preserve prerogatives which, otherwise, would have been dissolved in a single group, in which the socialists, the ecologists and the communists would moreover have been in the minority.

A fluctuating number of groups

The number of groups, sometimes very large under the IIIe and IVe Republics (there was thus 16 groups in the Chamber of Deputies in 1936), was gradually reduced by increasing the number of parliamentarians needed to create a group, in order to avoid dispersion between a multitude of formations, which risked hampering the proper functioning of the chambers. This trend, stable until 1959 (it took 30 deputies to form a group in the National Assembly), has since been called into question, according to political circumstances.

The regulations of the National Assembly now provide for a minimum of 15 deputies to form a group (and that of the Senate a minimum of 10 senators). Partly reflecting the major political reorganization that took place after the election of Mr. Macron as President of the Republic in 2017, the XVe legislature had experienced a record number (under the Ve Republic) of ten groups.

the sixteenthe legislature reflects, from its opening, the unprecedented situation resulting from the legislative elections of June 12 and 19, 2022: ten groups already make it up, and an eleventh is announced for the fall. The functioning of the Assembly having originally been designed to be optimal with six groups, the question now seriously arises of a risk of congestion in the lower chamber.

Of these ten groups, seven reported as opposition groups. The “presidential” group (Renaissance) has 172 members; including the two other groups from the electoral alliance Together! – Horizons (30) and Democrat (48) – the President of the Republic will only be able to count on a relative majority of 250 deputies (the absolute majority being 289) to put his program to music. This institutional configuration is completely new, insofar as, apart from the hypotheses of cohabitation and the relative majority of the IXe legislature (275 socialist deputies at the start of the legislature), the Ve Since 1962, the Republic had known only the “majority fact”, that is to say a situation in which a compact and disciplined majority supports in a practically unconditional way the presidential policy led by the government.

A revival of Parliament?

Without being able to prejudge the future and on condition of being reasonably optimistic about the attitude of opposition groups – who know they are threatened with dissolution in the event of an institutional deadlock –, it is possible to consider, against the alarmist projections outlined for 15 days, that this new institutional situation does not present only disadvantages.

It could indeed lead to a renewal of parliament, a fundamental cog in our representative democracy. Weakened by a half-hearted electoral victory against the far right and by the setback suffered in the legislative elections, forced to come to terms with a Senate whose majority is opposed to him, the President of the Republic is not sure of being able to adopt its reforms. Even the deputies of "his" (relative) majority, now more experienced and above all less indebted to their election to the President of the Republic than five years ago, could be less docile. In a word, to "govern", Emmanuel Macron will have to make his own the culture of discussion and compromise.

Long attempted with the forceps of successive constitutional revisions (with very relative success), the revaluation of the parliamentary institution will perhaps result, and more simply, from the unprecedented political configuration of the summer of 2022.

Elina Lemaire, Lecturer, University of Burgundy - UBFC

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com / Olrat

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