The National Assembly (“Assemblée Nationale”) in France is the lower house of the Parliament, along with the upper house called the Senate (“Sénat”). Its members are representatives known as the deputies (“deputes”)
577 of those deputies form the National Assembly, each of them elected for five year terms, by a single-member constituency through a two-round voting system. The minimum required to reach a majority for a political group is 289 seats.
The members of the Assembly are elected by direct and universal voting, just like the Presidential election process. The National Assembly is supposed to represent the French People and forming thus a government “of the People, by the People and for the People”, as stated in the French Constitution. The National Assembly symbolically embodies the general will coming from the populous and its main role consists in discussing, amending and voting on bills.
The National Assembly has a President, elected for five years as the rest of the deputies, who holds certain powers and makes sure that procedures are conducted efficiently and correctly.
Since the time of the French Revolution, the members of the Assembly have sat from left to right according to their political ideology. In the first National Assembly, “left-wing” parties used to sit to the left from the point of view of the president’s seat, whereas “right-wing” parties gradually sit to the right of what is called the Hemicycle (“L’Hémicycle”). Consequently, “L’Hémicycle” has become some sort of second name for the National Assembly, referring to the room as well as to the deputies themselves as a whole. The official building itself is located on the bank of the Seine River, in the Palais Bourbon.
Even though the National Assembly has existed through the five Republics that France has known since 1792, the shape of the National Assembly has undergone radical changes over the course of those years. The Fifth Republic, one could say that, compared to the Third and Fourth Republic, the power of the executive (i.e. the President, his Prime Minister and his government) has been considerably increased, at the expense of the Parliament.
Indeed, as it is written in the 1958 Constitution, the President of the Republic may dissolve the National Assembly and call for new legislative elections when he or she sees fit. Presidents who have done so wanted a clear majority to support their policy and major reforms, particularly when the political tendencies of the Parliament have differed from that of the President
However, the National Assembly does actually have the power to overthrow the executive government, including the ministers and the Prime Minister, nominated by the President (the National Assembly does not have the power to overthrow the President himself). Thus, in reality, the Prime Minister and his cabinet must be part of the party or coalition that holds the majority of deputies in the Assembly. This sometimes lead to what is called a “cohabitation”, which means a President having to choose a Prime Minister which doesn’t share his political view and often being a direct opponent.
Today, this situation is rare, since the presidential and the legislative elections now occur almost at the same time, every five years. Before 2000, the Presidential term as 7 years while the deputies were elected for 5 years, making cohabitation a real issue. Nowadays, the presidential term is 5 years and the legislative elections follow directly the presidential elections, approximately a month later, making it more likely that the population of France will vote similarly in both elections, and therefore decreasing the likelihood of cohabitation.
Since 2008, the power of the Assembly have been reformed and reinforced. Before that reform, the Executive Government used to set the priorities and agenda for Assembly sessions but now, the Executive Government sets the agenda for two weeks each month. One week is devoted to questions addressed to the government and the last week is completely free for the Assembly to decide. Every Wednesday, a public session is broadcasted to the public, consisting of questions from the deputies to the members of the Executive Government.
Although the National Assembly is the “lower” chamber of the Parliament, it has more powers than the higher chamber, the Senate, under the Constitution of the fifth Republic. In this bicameral system, the two chambers independently discuss bills, but the Assembly has the last word on all laws passed.
To be elected as a deputy, a candidate must gather at least 50% of the votes cast in the first round. In the case that no candidate is elected in this first round, those who get at least 12.5% of the registered voters (not of those who casted votes) can participate to the second round of voting. During this second round, a simple majority is enough to be elected.