French Word of the Day: l’Hémicycle

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French Word of the Day: l’Hémicycle
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

No, it's not something that circus performers ride around on.


Why do I need to know l’hémicycle?

Because it comes up a lot when serious questions of law and politics are being debated. 

What does it mean?

L’Hémicycle - roughly pronounced lem-ee-see-cluh - translates as ‘hemicycle’ in English, which is defined as ‘a semicircular shape or structure.’

In France, it almost always refers to a parliamentary debating chamber, which in the country's major political institutions are designed as a semi-circle shape as this is thought more likely to promote reasoned debate (it's fair to say that this is not a foolproof system). 


Its most common usage is referring specifically to the legislative chamber in the Palais Bourbon, which is the seat of the country’s Assemblée Nationale (the lower house of parliament). 

It can also reference the legislative debating and voting chamber for the French Senate as well, though it would likely be specified as the hémicycle du sénat. The Palace of Versailles also has a hémicycle, although its formal name is the Salle de Congrès. 

You will often see French media reference hémicycle as a general term for parliament or the debating chamber.

You might also see the French press discuss the hémicycle if a certain politician's behaviour there has been of note - for instance, former Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne’s vaping habits in the chamber.

As for the hémicycle itself, the semi-circular structure has its roots in Ancient Greece, and in modern times many parliaments across the world use the set-up, including the European parliament.

In France, it was Joseph-Ignace Guillotin - best known for his efforts to encourage the use of the guillotine for executions on the basis of egalitarianism - who advocated for the use of a semi-circle shape for France’s lawmakers. 

You can see where the député representing your district sits on the Assemblée website.

Use it like this

Le ministre de la santé a demandé au premier ministre d'arrêter de vapoter dans l'hémicycle. - The health minister told the prime minister to stop vaping in the legislative chamber.

Personne ne sait ce qui se passera lorsque le projet de loi arrivera dans l'hémicycle. Il peut aller dans un sens ou dans l'autre. - No one knows what will happen when the bill arrives in front of legislators. It could go either way.


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