History and heritage


  • History of the National Assembly

    History of the National Assembly

    The history of France's Parliament over the last two centuries is closely linked with the history of democracy and the chequered path it has followed before finding its culmination in today's institutions.

    The French have regularly elected their representatives since 1789, but how they have elected them and what powers they have given them have varied considerably over time: periods in which parliament was in decline generally coincided with a decline in public freedoms.

    The names given to Parliament are not without significance. `National Assembly' was the name chosen in the fervour of 1789, but it failed to reappear (apart from the short episode of 1848) till 1946. In the intervening years, designations of varying degrees of dilution (`Chamber of Representatives', Legislative Body', `Chamber of Deputies') reflected the reticence hostility even of those in power towards the principle of the sovereignty of the people.

    The beginning : 1789

    On 17 June 1789, one month after the Estates-General met at Versailles, the members of the third estate declared themselves to be the `National Assembly', since they represented at least 96% of the nation. They took sovereign powers in respect of taxation and decided to frame a constitution restricting the powers of the king. Henceforth, sovereignty was to reside not in the person of the monarch but in the nation, which would exercize it through the representatives it elected. This revolutionary idea was expressed in the 1791 and 1795 constitutions.

    The revolutionary assemblies (1791-99)

    Under the 1791 Constitution the Legislative Assembly was elected for one year by restricted suffrage and was empowered to enact laws and raise taxes, determine public expenditure, ratify treaties and declare war. It sat as of right and could not be dissolved. The king held executive power but could block statutes enacted by the Assembly for no more than two years.

    After the suspension of Louis XVI on 10 August 1792 a new assembly was elected by universal suffrage. It was called a `Convention' on the American model and was required to draw up a republican constitution. The first constitution was passed in 1793 but never came into operation.

    Under the Constitution of the Year III (1795) legislative power was shared by two chambers, elected for three years by restricted suffrage (a Council of Five Hundred, which had power to initiate laws, and a Council of Ancients), with an executive of five, the Directory.

    After four years of severe political instability the coup de grâce came on 18 Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799), when Bonaparte took power and Parliament was eclipsed for many years.

    Parliament muzzled (1799-1830)

    By the Constitution of the Year VIII (1799) France's legislature under the Consulate and the First Empire was divided into four assemblies (Conseil d'Etat, Tribunat, Corps législatif and Sénat), none of them elected by direct suffrage. This furthered the omnipotence of the executive, concentrated in the hands of Napoleon.

    The Charter granted by Louis XVIII in 1814 restored royal sovereignty, slightly attenuated by the existence of a bicameral Parliament a Chamber of Deputies elected for five years by restricted suffrage and a Chamber of Peers(hereditary or life). But the chambers could be convened and adjourned as the king wished; they had no power of initiative or any means of influencing the Government. They had only a semblance of power.

    The beginnings of a Parliamentary regime (1830-48)

    After the 1830 revolution a new notion of sovereignty became clear: the Charter was not granted but was passed by the Chamber and accepted by the king, who pledged loyalty to it. This meant that there was a pact between the representatives of the nation and the monarch: they exercised sovereignty together.

    The right to initiate legislation was restored to the two chambers. And the principle of ministerial responsibility before Parliament was first established.

    From the republican interlude to the Second Empire (1848-70)

    The republican constitution established after the 1848 revolution opposed a Legislative Assembly of 750 members to a President of the Republic, both elected by universal suffrage but neither capable of influencing the other. This excessive separation of powers resulted in the coup d'état of 2 December 1851: Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte dissolved the Assembly and, by plebiscite, arrogated to himself the power to promulgate a new constitution.

    The 1852 Constitution resorted again in order to weaken national representation to the methods tried and tested under the First Empire: an all-powerful executive (ministers appointed by the Emperor and accountable to him alone) opposed by an elected Legislative Body sharing diminished powers with a Council of State (made up of civil servants) and a Senate (whose members were appointed for life). These institutions failed to survive the defeat of 1870. After the fall of the Empire the Assembly elected on 8 February 1871, meeting first in Bordeaux and then in Versailles until 1879, passed the constitutional acts of 1875 which were to govern France for sixty-five years and provide the true foundation for the nation's Parliamentary system.

    Entrenchment of the Parliamentary system (1875-1940, 1946-58)

    Third Republic

    By the constitutional acts of 1875 legislative powers were shared by the Chamber of Deputies, elected by direct universal suffrage for four years, and the Senate, elected by indirect suffrage for nine years. The two houses had extensive powers both in initiating legislation and in supervising the Government, which was accountable to Parliament. In practice this latter power was exercised mostly by the Chamber of Deputies. The President of the Republic could dissolve the Chamber, but this power was no longer used after 1877. The Third Republic was marked by much ministerial instability and, paradoxically, between the wars, by frequent delegations of legislative power to the Government.

    On 10 July 1940 the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate met as the National Assembly at Vichy and granted full powers to Marshal Pétain (though eighty members voted against) [Chronology of the Appeal of 18 June 1940]. There was no organization representing the will of the nation from then until August 1944, when the Provisional Government set up a Consultative Assembly. An elected Constituent Assembly then determined the institutions of the Fourth Republic.

    Fourth and Fifth Republics

    The Constitution of 27 October 1946, like its predecessor, established Parliamentary sovereignty and the preeminence of the legislature.

    The National Assembly, elected by proportional representation, had more extensive powers than the Council of the Republic. It could determine how long it could sit and its order of business, and it alone could overturn the Government. On the other hand, the Government could dissolve the Assembly, but this was subject to particularly strict conditions which were met only once, in 1955, under the Edgar Faure administration. Helped by an electoral system that militated against homogeneous political majorities, ministerial instability was again to be the rule untilGeneral de Gaulle returned to power in May 1958 and institutions were put in place that determined parliamentary powers much more strictly.

  • The Marseillaise

    La Marseillaise
    Rouget de Lisle (1760-1836) and La Marseillaise


    Rouget de Lisle chantant la Marseillaise (tableau)


    "Mr de Lisle, write for us a song that will rally our soldiers from all over to defend their homeland that is under threat and you will have won the nation," proposed Dietrich, the Mayor of Strasbourg on the evening April 25th 1792, to one of his guests, Rouget de Lisle. The painter Isidore Pils (1813- 1875) immortalized the moment It was a tumultuous period in history : five days after France 's declaration of war on Austria and Prussia the French needed a marching song that could galvanize the troops of the Rhine Army. As a result, the highly successful French national anthem was born. Its author, however, was not so lucky.

    Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle was born in Lons-le-Saunier on May 10th 1760. He spent his childhood in the nearby town of Montaigu in the Jura department where his parents lived. From a very young age Claude Joseph showed a passion for music, but his father had other plans for him. In 1776, he enrolled at the Ecole militaire ( Military Academy ) in Paris and in 1782 at the École du génie de Mézières (engineering school in Mézières). In 1791 he joined the Rhine Army in Strasbourg and was assigned to the Les enfants de la patrie battalion. It was here, at the behest of Dietrich, that he composed the Battle hymn of the Rhine Army. The song was adopted by soldiers from Marseille as they marched into Paris in July 1792 Parisians called the song the "Marseillaise" and the name stuck. In August 1792, Rouget de Lisle was suspended from office after refusing to recognize the abolition of monarchy. He was reinstated in October of the same year. During the Terror he was imprisoned in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. He was released after the Thermidorean Reaction (July 1794) that led to the arrest and execution of Robespierre. On the April 9th 1796 , Rouget de Lisle finished his military career. He had disappointments with Napoléon, occupied a range of posts, and earned a meagre living through his writing. In 1830 he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour. He died on June 26th 1836 in Choisy-le-Roi at the age of 76. His ashes were moved to Les Invalides on 14th July 1915 . As for La Marseillaise, it was declared a national song on 14th July 1795 and became the national anthem in 1879.