Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Journées du Patrimoine

Saturday and Sunday were the Journées du Patrimoine here in France, meaning that hundreds of important buildings and institutions across the country opened their doors to the public. One of the joys of living in a capital city on occasions like this is that you get to see the really important stuff and we chose one of the most important places of all: the Assemblée Nationale, which is the French version of the House of Commons.

We went at lunchtime, meaning that the queue was a not too ridiculous 45 minutes long, including the security check. You had to shuffle round in a prescribed order, essentially going at the speed of everybody else who was visiting, although it was possible to stop to take photos.

What was a little bit disappointing was that, while the actual debating chamber is quite large, only a bit of it was opened to the public, and although you could see all the rest, there was only time to snap a quick picture before they hurried you on to let more people in.

Cool things included the Assembly Post Office, where you can send mail with themed stamps and a special postmark, and these little caricature sculptures of famous people linked with the Assembly. Jean-Marie Fruchard was clearly not too popular!

There were also busts of Marianne, whose official face used to change every year until that became too complicated and they settled on the version that is used today.

I took the opportunity to revise my (very limited) knowledge of French government and elections. The deputies at the Assembly are directly elected. Cabinet ministers do not have to be voted in as deputies but are appointed by the President, who is elected separately in a presidential election. It is not impossible, or even uncommon, to have ministers with important portfolios who have never won a public election.

The Assembly can have a vote of no confidence in the executive (the president and the government ministers), but this is generally a symbolic way of demonstrating opposition and the executive is rarely actually overthrown. The president, on the other hand, has the power to dissolve the Assembly. Jacques Chirac did this in 1997, but unfortunately for him, the majority of the newly elected Assembly that followed was in opposition to him. A large part of the agenda for debate is set by the government, meaning that the executive has a lot of power.

The Upper House in France is the Sénat, whose members are indirectly elected by locally elected officials. Like the Assembly, the Senate can submit bills to the government and also amend them, although if the Senate disagrees with the Assembly, the government can decided to give the power to decide solely to the Assembly. As a foreigner living in France, however, the process for electing the senators was interesting to me because, as I have the right to vote locally but not nationally, it offers the only opportunity (albeit indirectly) to have a say in national politics. Looks like I might have to develop an interest in local elections after all!

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