EXPLAINED: What does France’s Senate actually do and how much power does it have?

EXPLAINED: What does France's Senate actually do and how much power does it have?
Photo: Thomas Samson/AFP
The role of the French Senate is frequently misunderstood outside France because - unlike its equivalents in countries including the US - its powers have several big limitations. Here's what it actually does.

In April, France’s Senate caused global uproar when it proposed a ban on the Muslim headscarf in an amendment to the government’s anti-separatism law. 

It didn’t matter that the Bill had made no mention of the headscarf until the amendment was added, nor that the addition has a near-zero chance of finding its way into the final law. It just mattered that French Senators were considering it.

A couple of weeks later, thousands of people took to the streets of Paris and other cities in support of further action on climate change – just as the Senate was preparing to debate efforts to enshrine climate action in the French constitution, where right-wing senators were expected to try to “empty the Bill of its substance”.

Those were the headlines. But they are not the whole story, and articles often don’t explain what the France’s Senate is, and what its Senators do.

This, unsurprisingly, causes more than a few misunderstandings.

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What is the Senate?

Short answer: The Senate is – along with the Asemblée nationale – one of two chambers of the French Parliament. It is the check and balance on the power of MPs (députés) in the Assembly.

More complete answer:  The Senate’s job is to review Bills submitted by the government of the day, or by the Assembly. It also watches over the Government to make sure that any enacted laws are implemented properly. Senators can – and do – introduce bills of their own, but it is the Assembly that is the real driving force of government.

Importantly, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic charges the Senate with one additional role: to represent the local bodies of the Republic – municipalities, départements and regions – in metropolitan France and overseas.

The current French senate president is Gérard Larcher. Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP

I’ve never voted for my Senator, so are they elected?

Yes, they are – but not directly by voters.

Each of the 348 Senators are elected by 162,000 officials known as grands électeurs – who themselves are made up of elected regional councillors, départment councillors, mayors, municipal councillors in larger communes and MPs in the National Assembly.

Senators serve a six-year term, with 50 percent of its seats up for election every three years. The number of Senators per constituency depends on the population, so the city of Paris has 12 Senators, the Nord départment 11, and the sparsely-populated département of Lozère just one.

The average age of Senators at the beginning of their term, according to official figures, is 61. A total 68 percent are men, and 315 of the 348 officials represent metropolitan France. The remaining 33 represent French citizens living abroad, including overseas territories and departments.

That’s a small pool of voters…

That’s true. And there’s a bias towards rural areas which means the Senate, on the whole, remains on the centre-right of France’s political spectrum. It has leaned left only once since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 – for the three-year period between 2011-2014. 

And what do they do, exactly?

Primarily, Senators examine government bills, and propose changes and additions before they become law. 

In common with upper houses of Parliament in other countries, fact-finding missions, hearings and debates are their weapons of political choice – along with plenary sessions and committees.

Senators can – and do – table bills of their own, though the government has priority in setting the agenda for both the National Assembly and the Senate. However, two weeks per month are reserved for an agenda chosen by the Senate, per Article 48 of the Constitution.

One sitting day per month is reserved for an agenda chosen by opposition or minority political groups.

Because both houses can make changes to a bill before it becomes law, it usually takes several readings before a consensus is reached. 

Occasionally, if no agreement is reached on a key piece of legislation, the government can step in and give the final decision on a bill to the Assemblée nationale rather than the Senate – but it is more likely to withdraw a bill that does not have the support of both Houses.

Importantly, however, this power means the National Assembly takes the lead role in the law-making process in France and just because an amendment is approved by the Senate, it doesn’t mean that it will become law.

Government bills may receive their first reading in either the Senate or the National Assembly. But the government’s financial bills, including those that concern funding of the social security system, must first be tabled before the National Assembly.

Given its special role under the Constitution, bills concerning territorial organisation or representation of French citizens living outside France must first be tabled before the Senate.

Anything else?

The Senate also monitors the administration’s actions and publishes numerous reports each year on various topics. 

Every week, Senators on committees question Ministers, and individual Senators can address written questions to Ministers. Responses are usually expected within a month.

According to the Senat.fr website, senators put about 7,000 questions a year to the government. They also table some 8,000 amendments.

That makes it all much clearer. Thank you.

There’s one more thing…

The President of the Senate – or Speaker – will step in as acting President of France in case of death, resignation or removal from office (for health reasons) until a new election can be held. 

This last happened in April 1974, when Georges Pompidou died while in office. President of the Senate Alain Poher was acting President until Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was elected a month later.

Poher had also previously temporarily held the role when Charles de Gaulle resigned in 1969. 

It is therefore considered the second highest office in the Republic. The Speaker chairs the bureau of the Senate and the Chairperson’s Conference and has important constitutional powers.

The Speaker can appoint members to the powerful Constitutional Council and may refer matters to it if it is feared they breach laws or treaties, or run contrary to the Constitution.

The current holder of the post is Gérard Larcher. He has held the position since 2014 and his name came up in a lot of articles when President Emmanuel Macron was diagnosed with Covid just before Christmas. Fortunately, the president made a full recovery.

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