The Senate, « Sénat » is the upper house of the French Parliament together with the lower house, the National Assembly. Despite their names, the “upper house” has less power than the “lower house” when it comes to the two chamber’s relative abilities to pass laws.
Unlike the Assembly, the Senate was not part of the Constitution of first Republic of France and is not originally a republican organization. In fact, it appeared first with the Restoration in 1814, as a Chamber of Peers, modeled after the House of Lords in Britain. During the third Republic, it was intended to serve as a check to the power of the Assembly, considered at the time as unstable. Its role evolved with every following regime until its current structure in the fifth Republic.
The Senate is housed inside the Palais du Luxembourg, near the Jardin du Luxembourg, in the 6th arrondissement of Paris.
In September 2004, changes were made in the role of the Senate. Before this year, the Senate was comprised of 321 senators (“sénateurs”), each elected for nine years. The term of office was reduced to six years and then in 2011, the number of senators increased to 348. Since then, half of the Senate is re-elected each year.
The main difference between the Senate and the National Assembly is the election process. While in the Assembly the deputies (“députés”) are elected by universal and direct voting, senators are elected indirectly by an approximate number of 150, 000 officials, called “grands électeurs” comprised of mayors, some members of the National Assembly, regional councilors, and department councilors among others. As a consequence, the composition of the Senate is supposed to represent more accurately the rural areas instead of the more populated main cities and give a real representation to the local or regional authorities and governments. This is contrary to the National Assembly, which favors the most populated areas. This fact often gives the Senate a reputation as a more stable and conservative body.
Just as in the National Assembly, senators sit from left to right according to their political ideology. The Senate also has a President, elected by the other senators, who is supposed to replace the President in the interim if the President was be able to fulfill his function temporarily or permanently.
As written in the Constitution, the Senate has powers similar to that of the Assembly. Bills that are submitted by the administration or by members of one the two houses of Parliament are discussed in the Assembly and in the Senate. Both can amend them freely. However, the Assembly always has the last word at the end of the several exchanges between the two houses, called “la navette”, or “the shuttle”. The Assembly is also composed of a majority party that is the same party as the Executive administration, as it is the only house that can dismiss the government. Consequently, deprived of those powers, the Senate occupies a less powerful position in Parliament. However, the role of the Senators is considered as vital to the democratic process as the deputies for discussion on issues such as the budget of the government, and as an organ of control and stability.