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The French Constitution provides that “when the institutions of the Republic, the independence of the Nation, the integrity of its territory or the execution of its international commitments are under grave and immediate threat, and that the regular operation of the constitutional public authorities is interrupted, the President of the Republic shall take the measures required by the circumstances, after officially consulting with the Prime Minister, the Presidents of [the National Assembly and the Senate], as well as the Constitutional Council.” The same article of the Constitution specifies that the President may not dissolve the National Assembly during such times, and that the Parliament always has the right to meet.
There does not appear to be any formal provision under French law for any sort of “emergency parliament” with devolved powers from the whole parliament to address crisis situations. However, both chambers of the French Parliament are able to function with only a minority of members present. The National Assembly is assumed to have a quorum: In principle, the majority of members must be present within the building for a vote to take place. However, a vote may take place even if a quorum is not present, and it will be considered valid so long as none of the presidents of the political groups demand that the quorum be verified before the vote takes place. Furthermore, the president of a political group may only demand verification of the quorum if a majority of his/her political group is present. The Senate has a similar rule. A vote theoretically requires the presence within the Senate building of a majority of senators. However, a vote is considered valid, regardless of how many senators were actually present, so long as the President of the Senate was not asked to verify the quorum prior to the vote, and he/she may only be asked to verify the quorum by a written request from thirty senators, who must be present. It is therefore perfectly possible for the French Parliament to function with only a minority of members, so long as there are not enough objectors to require verification of the quorum.
The National Assembly has modified its operations in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Conference of Presidents (consisting of the President of the National Assembly, the vice-presidents, the presidents of the permanent commissions, and a few other prominent members of the National Assembly) has decided to reduce the National Assembly’s activity to examining and voting on urgent and indispensable texts related to the current crisis, and to monitoring the actions of the executive branch. Only a limited number of members are allowed to sit in the chamber: the president of each political group (or a delegate), along with a maximum of two other members of each political group. While there have been reports that the Senate is currently operating in a “small formation,” as of the writing of this report, it has not been possible to determine whether it has adopted any formal measures similar to those of the National Assembly. No information was found on how either chamber of the French Parliament is to operate its offices when members and staff are unable to travel or are under any sort of confinement.
Prepared by Nicolas Boring
Foreign Law Specialist
Last Updated: 12/30/2020