French MPs' absence in key debate is parliament's weakness

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At the end of four days of debates, French MPs on Wednesday voted in favour of the socialist government’s package of proposed amendments to the country’s constitution, which include stripping French nationality from convicted terrorists and giving temporary state of emergency powers a permanent legal basis. The measures are highly controversial and have opened deep divisions both on the Left and Right, yet when the crucial voting of the reforms began on Monday, just 136 MPs out of a total 577 were present. Mediapart political affairs commentator Hubert Huertas argues here that the decried absenteeism reveals above all an inherent weakness of the French parliamentary system.

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France’s National Assembly, the parliamentary lower house, on Wednesday approved the socialist government’s proposed reforms of the French constitution in the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris.

The controversial amendments, which still have a long and uncertain procedural path ahead, include the stripping of French nationality from those convicted of terrorism and making state of emergency powers a permanent inclusion in the constitution. The proposed measures have caused deep divisions on the Left and Right, amid weeks of fierce public debate.

Yet on Monday evening, when Article 1 of the reforms, that detailing the enshrinement in the French constitution of state of emergency powers which until now can only be temporary, was submitted to parliament for approval, less than one-in-five of Members of Parliament (MPs) - 136 out of a total 577 - were present.

The absenteeism prompted ferocious comments relayed in the press, voiced on the radio or repeated in the social media. Some underlined the inevitable discredit it placed on the political class, others expressed their despair, while French daily Libération invited its readers to demand an explanation from those MPs who were absent from the vote on Tuesday, and published a list of their names.

There were also angry politicians: leading Green party Member of Parliament (MP) Cécile Duflot Tweeted an “Alas” of regret over the missing 448 MPs, while Alexis Corbière, national secretary of the radical-left Parti de Gauche spoke of a “decomposition”. Socialist Party MP Eduardo Rihan Cypel, displaying a photo of the poorly-attended parliamentary session, commented with irony that “demonstrably, the constitutional reform impassions [my] colleagues”.  

Among the leaders of the parliamentary groups, some could not hide their discomfort. For Philippe Vigier, head of the centre-right UDI group, the absenteeism showed that “it is complicated to be present at every moment”. Socialist Party spokeswoman Annick Lepetit regretted “the thin presence of opposition MPs in the chamber”. Meanwhile, Communist Party MP André Chassaigne made a fundamental observation: “It’s the very difficulty MPs face – they are there to make laws, even reform the constitution, but there is also the work in the field that needs to be done in the constituency,” he said.

This double role has been a recurrent line for the past half-century. When questioned about the poor image the National Assembly carries, MPs regularly repeat that they are required to carry out essential parliamentary work, but also respect a necessary presence in their constituencies. So it is that, behind the absenteeism that shocks the electorate, and which repels them, there is in fact quite simply the desire to be closer to them! Moreover, a typical week for an MP is divided in two: from Tuesday until Thursday evening or Friday morning they are in Paris, and from Friday until Monday in their constituency.

However, thousands of men and - little by little - women have succeeded each other at the National Assembly since the advent of the Fifth Republic, who have different personalities and party labels, under changing political majorities, yet the question of absenteeism has never been dealt with. It prompts sarcasm and allows the far-right Front National party to make hay with its “all of them rotten” dismissal of mainstream politicians – even if its own representatives are champions among the absent. Periodically there are proposals for a solution to the problem, but which never end in a result. The lower house’s regulations are tinkered with, a table of absentees is drawn up, but the image remains. When, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the parliamentary debates are broadcast on television the chamber is well attended, but on the other days of the week, even when a vote is of notable importance, the chamber is more or less deserted.

It is a chronic problem, one which is of such a constant nature that it cannot be dismissed as being down to the weakness or the “couldn’t care less” attitude of some. Beyond individuals, it is in fact a system that is in question. The accumulation of several elected titles (MP, mayor, president of a regional council, and so on) naturally plays a role, but it is the very nature of the job of MP under the Fifth Republic that urges this accumulation, which is an intractable one. An MP is required to take on an obvious national role, write laws and vote them through, and also carry out a quite intangible local function. For what, exactly, is the local role of an MP? What can he concretely do apart from showing support for the mayor, for the départemental (county) or regional councillor, or the local Senator, while promising to be the best lobbyist of his constituency?

Stretched between their local electorate and their national duties, MPs will necessarily be driven to choose the first. Elected to vote on the nation’s budget, or that of the justice system or school system, to approve or not a military campaign, to prolong or not the state of emergency – in sum, to be actively involved in issues of general interest – the MP will be first and foremost the spokesperson for his or her local population.

This ‘local dimension’ is, with trembling voice, placed at the fore whenever there is criticism of the current proportional electoral system, which is accused by some of creating disconnected political representatives. Ultimately, the man or woman given charge of voting laws through parliament are called upon to ‘play outside’ at least three days out of seven, in their constituency, to watch over the votes.

Thus, what the naked eye sees in the chamber of the lower house and which scandalises the public is not only the absence of MPs. It is above all the nature of the French parliament, a part-time Assembly.

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  • The French version of this article can be found here. An audio version, read in French by Hubert Huertas, can be heard in the podcast below:

absente-isme-parlementaire

 

English version by Graham Tearse

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