It’s Back to the Benches for the New Representatives

On May 26th, the newly elected representatives of the French National Assembly chose their President. For some, this was new and exhilarating, while others made their way back to the benches that had been theirs for years before. After months of intense campaigning, this is an important moment when political forces begin navigating a new balance that will dictate the five years to come.

This new Assembly witnessed a reversal of the majority party. After the legislative elections on May 17th, the Parti Socialist (PS), or Socialist Party, and the Left as a whole, won the majority in the Assembly, while the Right’s leading party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), became the major opposing party after many years in power.

As a result of this power shift, a new President of the Assembly was elected. Claude Bartolone of the PS received 288 votes, against 185 votes for Bernard Accoyer (UMP), right-wing candidate and former President of the National Assembly. The sole PS nominee, Bartolone’s election was certain, given that the PS itself has the absolute majority necessary in the Assembly to make decisions on its own without needing to create a coalition with other left parties.

Accoyer won the vote of his party, but the center-right group, Union des démocrates et indépendants (UDI), chose so submit blank votes because while they did not agree politically, they believed the President should be a socialist as that is how the people had votes. On the other side of the political spectrum, however, the ecological group formed by members of the party Europe-Ecologie-Les-Verts, (EELV), an ally of the PS, also chose to submit a blank vote as a protest against the refusal of the socialists to make an ecologist the head of the Parliamentary Commission for Sustainable Development.

The media as well as others found humor in some unusual situations that took place during this first meeting of the representatives. The deputies sat on the benches in alphabetical order. Consequently, Jean-François Copé, current leader of the UMP, sat next to Gilbert Collard, recently elected representative from the extreme right party, the Front National (FN). They dared not speak to each other.

For his opening speech, Bartolone emphasized his origins and his exemplarity career as a “son of proletarians, a child of Tunisia, born from an Italian father and from a Maltese mother . . . Nothing destined me to rise.  Nothing, except the Republic, its values, its schooal, the only things which can give loving parents the strength to counter bad fates”. Consequently, he added that he expected, from every representative in the Assembly, “a strict respect of those values which make the identity of France”.

The new president of the Assembly also wanted to give positive signs to the new opposition, “I can guess what the feelings of the opposition are in this moment. Because I knew it yesterday, I make this promise to them: I will be a president who will protect your rights”.

Being the president of the Assembly is an onerous task for one man. According to the French Constitution, this is the fourth most important position in the 5th Republic. Beyond that, Bartolone will have to find a new balance among the groups in the Assembly. He will have to remind his own party, as his neutrality demands, not to bully the opposition because it has the absolute majority. On the other hand, Bartolone may have to temper the opposition and also of the new FN representatives of the, who have promised to fully play the role of agitator.

This new Assembly has several challenges to face. The low participation rate in the legislative elections shows a lack of interest and confidence from the French citizens in their representatives. They need to prove that their institution remains independent from executive power and can actually voice the concerns of ordinary citizens, who are either moving away from political participation altogether or giving their votes to extreme parties.

Additionally, only 73% of these new representatives are men, a record for the 5th Republic and an encouraging marker of progress regarding women in politics that still has a long way to go. With this statistic, France now ranks 34th among the countries that allow women to enter their lower Chamber.

The make up of the new National Assembly is, in many ways, historic. But only time will tell if the representatives will live up to the equally historic times we live in

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