Macron's proposed constitutional reforms weaken separation of powers, critics say
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One week into parliamentary debates over French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed constitutional reforms, concerns are being raised over how the amendments will blur the separation of legislative and executive powers.
The most controversial of the proposed changes would allow the president of the Republic to participate in the debate that follows Congress, raising concerns he is encroaching on parliamentary territory.
Congress is a special gathering of the French Senate and the National Assembly and the only occasion when the president can address parliament.
Macron advocated for the change at the July 9 Congress at Versailles. The criticism has been swift and biting.
“This is tantamount to giving the role of prime minister to the president. I am against it,” said President of the Senate, Gérard Larcher, warning that the revision would throw off the balance of the Fifth Republic.
Traditionally under the Fifth Republic, it has been the prime minister's role to brief parliament on policies and decrees implemented by the government.
“If [the change] goes through, it will be the most symbolic of the 2018 constitutional reform,” constitutional scholar Didier Maus told FRANCE 24.
Erasing the prime minister role
At the July 9 Congress, “Macron made a policy speech, a speech normally made by the prime minister,” said Maus. “The president pre-empted the prime minister ... If the president makes a speech every year announcing the policy agenda, the prime minister no longer has the same role.”
The president's appearance before Parliament has a long and fraught history in France. Integral to the notion of separation of powers was the “interdiction d’entrée dans les hémicycles parlementaires” – the president was not allowed inside the parliamentary chambers.
The ban dates back to the 1870s, when there were concerns that the president would use the power to bully the legislative body.
Constitutional reform made in 2008 at the demand of former president Nicolas Sarkozy allows the president to address parliament in person. After the address, parliament is allowed to hold a debate, but as of now, the president cannot be present.
Sarkozy and his successor François Hollande exercised their new power with moderation. Most of Hollande’s addresses were made in exceptional circumstances, notably after terrorist attacks.
When Macron took office, he sought to make the practice more routine with the introduction of a yearly American-style “state of the union” address.
And he is going even further with this latest proposal to allow the president to participate in any debate that follows a presidential address.
In his July 9 address, Macron painted the proposed change as a chance to turn his monologues into dialogues. He tweeted, “I asked the government to submit an amendment that would let me, at next year’s Congress, stay not just to listen but to respond.”
The Republic’s youngest president has taken the lead in policy debates, driving reforms with single-minded focus. This constitutional change could help enshrine Macron’s leadership style in the constitution.
J’ai demandé au gouvernement de déposer dès cette semaine un amendement qui permettra que je puisse, lors du Congrès de l’année prochaine, rester non seulement pour vous écouter, mais aussi pour vous répondre. #CongrèsVersaillesEmmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) July 9, 2018
Balance of power
The provision to allow the president to attend the Congress debates was added to the proposed constitutional reform bill on July 16. But by the end of the day on Friday, 1,470 other amendments to the bill had yet to be debated.
Some of the most controversial amendments would reduce the number of MPs, limit their rights to propose amendments, and introduce parliamentary term limits.
Former French minister Jean Glavany wrote in an op-ed in Libération that the reforms will hamstring parliament, transforming it into “a record-keeping body whose only power comes from its ability to bring down the government, like in Germany or the UK". French democracy, he says, “has nothing to gain” from these changes.
To Maus, the changes do not constitute a “transformation of the system”. They would be transformative “if the head of state’s speech to parliament were followed by a vote. He would be answering to parliament rather than to the people.”
Others are more cautious.
“You don’t play with the constitution,” warned Jean-Louis Debré, former president of the National Assembly and of the Constitutional Council, the independent body charged with ensuring that laws follow the constitution.