Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XX: the chamber of deputies - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER XX: the chamber of deputies - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the chamber of deputies
Of the laws which regulate the election and powers of the Chamber, those only which provide for its election by manhood suffrage, and determine its relations to the President and the Senate, form a part of the Constitution. Ordinary laws have supplied the rest, directing that the Chamber is to be elected for four years, and fixing its number, which is at present 626, of whom 24 represent Alsace-Lorraine, while 6 come from Algiers and 10 from various colonies. The normal electoral area had been, since 1889, the Arrondissement, a division of the Department for local administrative purposes; but now the Department has been substituted, the voting for the numerous candidates being by a form of proportional representation tried for the first time in 1919. Under this new plan, however, the strength of each party in the Chamber does not exactly represent the strength of the parties in the nation. It was adopted as a compromise between the opponents of proportional representation and those of its advocates who desired to see their principle more boldly applied, and the latter think it has not gone far enough. Registration is performed by the local authorities. They have been known to falsify the register, but this is not common enough to be a serious evil. A man with more than one place of residence can choose at which he will vote, no one being permitted to vote in more than one area whether for the Chamber or for local purposes.
France has tried many electoral experiments in the arrangement of constituencies. Three times she established the system of making the larger area of the department the electoral division, assigning to each department a number of seats based on its population, for all of which the voting took place together on one list, with a second balloting where no candidate obtained an absolute majority. This plan is called the Scrutin de liste. Three times this method was dropped and replaced by the Scrutin d'arrondissement (the scheme of one-membered constituencies). Now the Scrutin de liste has returned once more. Gambetta, among others, supposed that the larger electoral area would tend to raise the quality of candidates and diminish the power of local cliques and wirepullers, but this did not prove to be the case. Whether it will do so now remains to be seen.1
The election arrangements are comparatively simple and inexpensive, and in rural areas the polling-places are numerous, there being one in every commune. It is usually the hall of the Mairie. Polling always takes place on a Sunday. The machinery of the polling and counting are a public charge, nor is there any legal maximum fixed for the candidates' expenses. Voting is by ballot, supposed to be secret, but in the rural communes the Maire can usually see how the peasant votes, and the peasant generally believes that his vote is known to the priest, the school teacher, and the landlord. Election frauds are not very frequent, though sometimes gross. They generally take the form of dropping into the ballot-box, probably with the collusion of the presiding officer, two or three extra voting papers concealed within the single paper which the voter hands to that functionary. Pleasant anecdotes are told of the way in which these things are sometimes done in southern France. On one occasion the clerk of the Maire, finding that the votes given were not sufficient to elect the candidate desired, remarked to his subordinate, “It is for you to complete the work of universal suffrage.” Disturbances sometimes occur in which the ballot-boxes are seized by a group of rowdies, carried off and tampered with, but this is rare, and seems to be known only in the hot-headed south.
Bribery is sporadic, thought necessary in some places because otherwise the voters will not come up, and in other places useless because it would make no difference to the result. It seems less frequent than it was in England before the Corrupt Practices Act of 1882, or is now in some parts of the United States and Canada. Sometimes men defend or excuse it as a counterpoise to the exercise of undue influence by officials or (formerly) by ministers of religion. “Treating,” which is delicately described as “libations at the expense of the candidate,” is infrequent, though the village cabaret is usually the meeting-place of political committees. An experienced friend told me that illicit expenditure could hardly be a growing evil, for the tendency had of late years been to an increase of the votes given for candidates of advanced opinions, who are nearly all poor men, unable to spend money on elections, and receiving little or no help from party funds.1 Neither is there now in most parts of France any intimidation worth regarding by employers or landowners, though meetings are sometimes broken up and the polls disturbed by the violent opponents of a candidate. There are districts, however, especially in the west, where the landlord does exert influence on the tenant, and the master on the workman, and the priest on the parishioner.2 Clerical persuasion no longer takes illegitimate forms. The force that may seriously pervert elections is the quiet pressure of local functionaries under the direction of their superiors or at the bidding of the sitting deputy.3 Though there are not to-day any “official candidatures,” such as those which were shamelessly practised under the Second Empire and revived under the Monarchist ministry of 1877, it is common for public functionaries or employees, from the Prefect of the department down to the local gendarme or road-mender, to do what each can to further the election of the person whom the ministry in power approves. There is much less pressure on individual voters than there was in Louis Napoleon's days, but the district or the commune is made to understand the wishes of the Government and led to expect favours from it in the way of expenditure upon local public works, from a parish pump up to a bridge or a town hall. As Parliamentary majorities are fluctuating, so that every vote in the Chamber becomes of consequence to ministers, the latter exert themselves not only to secure the election of their professed supporters, hut to propitiate as many deputies as possible. The Prefect and under-Prefect and all the persons in local public employment know this, and do their best, whether expressly instructed or not, to promote the candidature of those on whom the ministry counts, or whom it seeks to oblige. In recent years the candidate, if he feels himself strong, has been wont to require these services from the Prefect, whose fortunes he may make or mar by his influence with the Government, and he sometimes lords it over the local officials. In 1902 a deputy whose election was being disputed, on the ground of the governmental influence exerted on his behalf, was reproached with having had himself everywhere presented to the voters by the Prefect. “Quite the reverse,” said he, “it was I who presented him.”
The most active because the most omnipresent and often the most intelligent agent in pushing the interests of a candidate, especially one of advanced opinions, is the village schoolmaster. He is usually also the clerk of the Commune, and has his own reasons for being a strong Republican, because he is the natural rival of the parish priest.
However willing a Prefect may be to turn his administrative machinery to party purposes, he is often embarrassed by the fact that the ministry's hold on office is so weak that the party of the candidate whom he has been opposing may, by some turn of the Parliamentary wheel, come into office and punish him for his action. The worshipper of the Sun must make sure that it is not a setting sun whom he worships. Thus a Prefect may show deficient zeal for ministerial candidates,1 and could, when the arrondissement was the electoral area, throw out anchors to windward by earning merit with candidates of different political stripes who were standing in different arrondissements of his department. Nevertheless the supporters of the Government actually in power have on the whole the advantage, and thus a threatened ministry usually strives to retain office till the Chamber expires by effluxion of time, so that it, may be able “to make the elections.” Yet it sometimes happens, in the constant shifting of Parliamentary majorities, that the Minister of the Interior finds after a few weeks that he has secured a majority for his successor.
When a return is contested on the ground of irregularity or fraud or undue influence, the matter goes first to a Committee of the Chamber chosen by lot, and then to the full Chamber. The Committees are said sometimes to decide impartially, after weighing the (unsworn) evidence laid before them. The majority in the Chamber is less scrupulous and seats or unseats the members elected in obedience to party motives.1 It is remarked that at the subsequent fresh election the unseated candidate is usually returned, for the French voter has a touch of the frondeur in him, and sets little store by the decisions of the Chamber, given in the spirit which is known to animate it.
Unsatisfactory as is the condition of things here described, there is little talk of mending it. The Chamber would not part with its control of disputed elections, nor would any one suggest that it should, as in England, be transferred to the judges, for it is held that only a body itself the child of universal suffrage can be entitled to deal with the results universal suffrage purports to have given. As regards official interference, the excuse made under the Second Empire that in a country so changeful as France it was the first duty of every Government to work for the stability of institutions, is one to which Republicans who acclaim the sovereignty of the people are hardly entitled to resort. If the people is all-wise as well as all-powerful, it ought to have its way. The practice is in fact constantly denounced by all parties, but it continues, because no ministry wishes to be the first to part with an advantage which it finds ready to hand in the far-reaching power of the central government. The command of the machinery makes the temptation; and the defence made for yielding to it dates from the earlier days of the Third Republic, when the gravity of the issues then before the Chamber seemed not only to Royalists, who had seen it unscrupulously used by Louis Napoleon, but even in some measure to Republicans also, sufficient to justify practices theoretically indefensible. The system is really of old standing, having its roots in the excessive power over local officials vested in the Government of the day. As an eminent politician observed when inveighing against the evil, “It is not the Government I accuse, but Centralization; not the heir, but the heritage.”
Let it be here mentioned, before proceeding to examine the rules of the Chamber and their working, (a) that a deputy must have attained the age of twenty-five and have all the qualifications of a voting citizen; (b) that members of families that have heretofore reigned in France cannot become candidates; (c) that no one can be a candidate at the same time in more than one constituency; and (d) that salaried officials, except a few of the highest, are ineligible. Ministers of religion are sometimes elected. Bishops have more than once been prominent figures.
The Chamber lasts for four years, meeting automatically in January, and has once only been dissolved before the expiration of its term. It is required by law to sit for at least five months in each year, but in fact has usually held a continuous session, interrupted by short vacations at different times in the year. It is convoked, not by the President of the Republic, though he may summon it for an extraordinary session, but by its own President.
This high functionary resembles the Speaker of the American House of Representatives rather than the Speaker of the British House of Commons, for he is not expected to display that absolute impartiality which is the distinguishing note of the latter, and he may rebuke, sometimes with pungent sarcasm, deputies whose language he disapproves. Custom has allowed him to favour, yet with due regard to fair play, the party to which he belonged before his elevation. He has not in recent years intervened in debates, but he keeps his eye on his own political future, often aspiring to the Presidency of the Republic, and sometimes called from the Chair to become the head of a Ministry. He is assisted in a general direction of the business of the Chamber by a Bureau or Standing Committee, consisting of the four Vice-Presidents (any of whom can preside in his absence), the eight Secretaries, and the three Questeurs, who have charge of financial matters. All these are deputies and chosen by the Chamber.
At its first meeting the Chamber divides itself into eleven sections called Bureaux, the members whereof are chosen by lot and similarly renewed monthly in the same way. Their chief function used to be to create what are called “Commissions,” bodies corresponding generally to the Committees of the British Parliament and the American Congress, but now it is the “Groups “(hereinafter mentioned) who nominate, each in proportion to its numerical strength, deputies to represent them on a Commission. Every Bill introduced is referred to some one of these bodies, which may alter it in any way, after hearing it explained and defended by the introducer. A member of the Commission, called the Reporter, prepares and submits to the Chamber a report upon it as amended, stating the reasons for the form the Commission has given to it.1 When it comes before the full Chamber he takes charge of it, sometimes almost entirely superseding its introducer, even though a Minister. As the membership of an important Commission is much sought for, the post of Reporter on an important Bill is an avenue to distinction, or a proof of distinction already achieved. Under this system, the Chamber through its Commissions exercises a control over administration as well as legislation, for they can enquire into all the work of a department, summoning its functionaries before them, and recommending or refusing the measures the department desires. The authority of the ministry is reduced, for its bills may return from the Commission in a form different from that which they originally had or which ministers approve. The majority of the Commission need not be supporters of the Ministry, or anywise disposed to meet its wishes.
The inconveniences attending this system of the dual control of ministerial measures are most manifest in the case of the Budget. Financial proposals made by the Executive come before a Commission of thirty-three members, which can alter them at its own pleasure, refusing some appropriations, adding others, so that, unless it condescends to defer to the representations of the Finance Minister, it may produce, after long secret deliberations, a Budget very different from that which he submitted. So when the Ministerial scheme comes before the Chamber, the Reporter appears as a sort of second and rival Finance Minister, whose views may prevail against those of the Cabinet. The Government of the day has little influence, except what it may personally and indirectly exert, upon the composition of the Commissions, which may contain a majority of members opposed to its general financial policy, or to the view it takes of particular measures. The natural result is to render legislation incoherent, to make the conduct of financial policy unstable and confused, and to encourage extravagance, because ministers cannot prevent expenditure they think needless or mischievous. A further consequence is to reduce the authority of an Executive which can be easily overruled, the jealousy which animates the deputies leading them to disregard its wishes, perhaps to enjoy the rebuffs it suffers. The power of those persons who seem responsible because they were the original authors of a measure, or who can be made responsible to the public because they hold an office, being thus so reduced or destroyed that they cannot fairly be treated as responsible, actual control has passed to bodies whose members, debating in secret and holding no office, are not effectively answerable. The nation cannot, if displeased, punish the latter and ought not to punish the former. In these practices there is visible a deviation, due to the tendency of an Assembly to encroach wherever it can, from the doctrine to which lip-service is paid in France, of the separation of legislative from executive power, for an Executive is impotent when the funds needed for administration are withheld.
Here let a curious custom be noted. Only since 1885 have the names of deputies voting in a division been regularly recorded and published.1 Voting is by ballot-papers of two colours, white denoting assent, blue disapproval. These are collected into an urn passed round by the attendants. A deputy may abstain from voting, though present in the Chamber, and can even vote by proxy, entrusting the function of dropping into the urn his paper to a friend who will vote white or blue according to what he conceives to be the wishes of his colleague. A case was mentioned to me in which an obliging deputy deposited the votes of more than thirty of his colleagues.
So much for what may be called the procedure of the Chamber. Let us pass to the men who run the machinery. As the Chamber is the centre of the whole political system, exerting a more complete control than does any legislature in any other government, we must examine in some little detail the persons who work the system and whom the system forms.
Though social as well as political equality reigns in France, there are still differences of rank, more significant in their disabling than in their recommending effect. Very few deputies come from the ancient nobility or from the large landowners, a section numerous in the West. That financial manufacturing and commercial plutocracy, which is called in America “Big Business,” has few representatives, and among these extremely few persons of great wealth. The largest element consists of professional men, lawyers, physicians, journalists, retired functionaries, and professors or school teachers, this last class being the fewest.
There are not many to speak for agriculture, and even fewer had worked with their hands before they entered the Chamber. Most of the Socialists belong to the professional or commercial class. The Chamber is no more plutocratic than it is aristocratic. It consists chiefly of the same upper strata of the middle classes as does the United States Congress or the Parliament of Canada, the chief difference being that in those bodies there are even more lawyers, but hardly any physicians or teachers or journalists.1 Few of the barristers have achieved distinction in their profession, for the building up of a large practice would be hardly compatible with attendance in the Chamber, but advocates who have succeeded there sometimes return to the bar and utilize at it their political fame while retaining their seats. Literature is represented almost entirely by journalists. If it be true, as French critics complain, that there are now few such intellectual displays as adorned the Chamber in the days of Louis Philippe, or in the first Assembly, elected in 1871, of the Third Republic, there is plenty of keen intelligence and especially of oratorical talent. It is not so much universal suffrage that has brought in men from -what Gambetta called the nouvelles couches sociales as the diffusion of secondary education, which has made easier the upward path for ability, especially of the literary and rhetorical kind. An English or American observer is impressed by the large number of deputies who possess not merely fluency but the gifts of lucid exposition and readiness in debate. Whether a man has much or little to say, he seems to know how to say it, not indeed in that choice or stately language which delighted auditors in the Assembly of 1871, but with readiness, force and point.
Such being the Deputy, whence comes he and how does he become a deputy? Though a man gains by being a resident or in the electoral area, or connected with it by birth, candidates are not, as in America, restricted to the place of their residence, and men of eminence have sat for districts with which they had no personal tie. The large majority, however, have spent their earlier life in the places they represent, and have begun their political career by acquiring influence among their neighbours. They enter local councils, and thus become known in the canton, the arrondissement, perhaps the department. They serve as Maires of their commune; they are active in local party work, and alert in looking after local interests generally. An ambitious doctor or lawyer may give gratuitous consultations or otherwise ingratiate himself with a local clientele. To belong to a Masonic lodge, or even to an angling society or a gymnastic club,— all these things help. Broadly speaking, the personality of a candidate counts for much, and of course counts for more when political issues are least exciting and where convictions are least strong. One must not only cultivate an easy and genial manner, but observe, at least in the provinces, a decent regularity of life, avoiding, especially in the northern parts of France (for the South is indulgent), whatever could shock the ame rigide de la province. If one has money to spend on local purposes, so much the better, particularly in the mountainous districts where people are poor; but as local candidates are seldom affluent there is less than in England of what is there called “nursing a constituency.” When an aspirant has in these ways established his position, it is for the party committee of his district to put him forward as candidate, since the central party organizations count for little (except among the Socialists) and do not send down a candidate or supply him with the sinews of war. When the election comes, the candidate, except in great cities, will usually talk more about local affairs and the services he expects to render to the constituency than about national politics or the merits and programme of his own particular section of the Eepublican party. The authority of party leaders has been little invoked since the death of Gambetta, the last statesman who had a name to conjure with. Though contests evoke much heat, sometimes expressing itself in personal abuse, perhaps even leading to a duel, the bulk of the citizens may be languid, and many will not sacrifice their Sunday holiday to come to the polls. The vote cast has been light, according to the standards of Britain, Switzerland, or America, rarely however falling below 60 per cent of the qualified voters.1 In 1919 it stood high, only 30 per cent having failed to vote.2
Once in, the deputy's first care is to stay in. This must be achieved —and here I refer less to large towns than to the ordinary rural or semi-rural constituencies —by a sedulous attention to the interests not merely of the district but of the individual residents in the district, especially of those to whom he owes his seat. Every kind of service is expected from him. He must obtain decorations for his leading supporters, and find a start in life for their sons and sons-in-law. Minor posts under Government and licenses to sell tobacco have to be secured for the rank and file. All sorts of commissions to be performed in Paris are expected from him, down to the choice of a wet nurse or the purchase of an umbrella. Several hours of his day are consumed in replying to the letters which pour in upon him, besides the time which must be given to the fulfilment of the behests he receives.
This is slavery. But there are compensations. Apart from his salary, which to the average member is a thing to be considered, he has power. He is one of the nine hundred odd who rule France. Though he is the servant of his electors, he is often also their master, respected and deferred to in his district as at least the equal of the Prefect, and perhaps stronger than his local party Committee. He is the fountain of honour, the dispenser of patronage, inspiring a lively sense of favours to come. So long as he helps the Department, and his friends in it, to the satisfaction of their desires, he is not likely to be disturbed, unless some sudden revulsion of political sentiment should sweep over the country. If he is well off, his subscriptions to local purposes help him; if poor, people feel it would be hard to turn him out and send him to seek a new means of livelihood. Accordingly, provided he keeps on good terms with the local wirepullers, and is not involved in a scandal which would reach the constituency, he is likely, at least in rural areas, to hold his seat, and may in the fulness of time transfer himself to the calmer waters and longer term of the Senate. A sitting member is, like a British member, generally selected by his party to fight the seat, so the bulk of members in each Chamber have sat in a preceding one. In 1919, however, 340 new members were elected.
Next to that of staying in, the chief aim of our deputy is to get on. His best course is at first to eschew the grande politique, and be content with establishing his position by securing a place on one or more of the best Commissions, and establishing friendly relations with as many as possible of his colleagues, primarily of course with those who share his opinions, but if possible with other sections also. He usually begins by inscribing himself as member of one of the numerous “groups “into which the Chamber is divided. This brings us to consider the parliamentary parties.
I have already traced in outline the history of the movements of political opinion in France since 1871. It would be tedious, and for our present purpose needless, to describe the successive evolutions and modifications, the splits and recombinations, by which the broad division of politicians into Monarchists and Eepublicans passed into the more numerous now existing parties. It may suffice to enumerate these as respects the Chamber of Deputies, for it is only there (and to a less degree in the Senate), not in the country, that they are clearly marked. The French hahit has long been to describe parties by names which had their origin in days when Conservatives sat on the right hand of the presiding officer, and Liberals on the left; and these names have the advantage of being colourless, while terms bearing a reference to particular tenets or a particular spirit frequently change their meaning, as the title “Progressive “has come to denote persons who are really Moderates, even perhaps Clericals, and “Radical,” once a name of terror, has been so softened down that men talk of “Eadicaux Moderes “or “Eadicaux Con-servateurs.” So the name “Socialist” is so far from being equivalent to “Collectivist “or “Communist “that one has heard of “Socialistes anti-Collectivistes”; and when a party calls itself “Independent,” its independence always inclines to the Eight, or conservative, rather than to the more “advanced “side.1
The nine groups which existed in 1914 and the eight which existed at the beginning of 1920 might be broadly described as being fractions of four larger parties, or rather subdivisions of four types of political opinion —first, the Monarchists; secondly, the Moderate Republicans (sometimes called Liberals); thirdly, the Advanced Republicans, cherishing the traditions of the First Revolution; and lastly, the Socialists, whose professed aim is an economic reconstruction of society.1 The groups from time to time dissolve, or unite, or re-form themselves under other names. They may be —indeed they are sure to be—-different in 1925 from what they are in 1920. It is therefore not worth while to describe their vaguely defined tenets or their always varying composition.
Let us now look at the Parliamentary group only as a wheel in the Parliamentary machinery. There is nothing like it in the American Congress, and only occasionally has something like it appeared in the British Parliament.2 It is nominally a political organization, holding certain views which it desires to advocate. But it is also personal. Having a social side and directly practical aims, it concerns itself with the fortunes of its members. It claims for them places on the more important Commissions, and if a new ministry has to be formed, the incoming Prime Minister will be likely, if the professed opinions of a group do not differ widely from those he professes, to strengthen his position by inviting one or more of its members to accept a portfolio. A new deputy may therefore be guided in joining a group not only by his own political predilections, or by a wish to play up to the general sentiment of his constituents, but also by his estimate of what the group can do for his own career. Some few remain outside the regular groups in the class of “deputies not inscribed,” and they also, it is said, act together on behalf of the personal interests and claims each desires to push. Though the members of a group have a Chairman and a Committee, and though they sometimes meet to consult on their collective action and usually vote together, they have not what the English call “whips “to bring them up to vote on a division. It is only among the Socialists that the obligation to act as one disciplined body is recognized and enforced by the threat of excommunication.
Besides these political groups there are, or have been, others formed on the basis of a specially keen interest in one subject, e.g. the French colonies, lay instruction, national defence; and also other groups devoted to the protection of some material interest. Such is the Agricultural Group, the Sugar Group, the Vine-growing Group, the Group of physicians. These aggregations form a sort of cross division of the Chamber. Most of them have nothing to do with party politics, and exert pressure on the ministry only for the advancement of their special industrial or commercial aims. The Colonial Group has large ambitions, and is frequently active in influencing governmental policy in the Chamber as well as in prompting the press.
As the groups are numerous, and no one of them commands one-third of the Chamber, no ministry expects to possess a majority which it can call its own. It must rely on a combination of two or more groups, constituting what is called, when it has reached solid stability, a Block. While the Block holds together, Ministers are reasonably safe. But the fluidity of each group imports an uncertainty into the action of every combination, so that when a new issue suddenly arises, due perhaps to displeasure at some act of the ministry, or to any other cause which creates temporary passion, the majority may crumble and the ministry fall, even without the open dissolution of the combination. It has also sometimes happened that the extreme groups, such as the Clericals on the one side and the Socialists on the other, hostile in principle, suddenly coalesce, and turn the balance of votes on a division. The union of extremists against the men in the middle is specially dangerous, because seldom predictable. These causes, taken together, explain the kaleidoscopic changes of government.
Another feature of the system, surprising to a British or American observer, is the absence of recognized leadership. Though every Group has its president, who to some extent directs it, who negotiates on its behalf with the existing ministry and with other groups, and is presumptively the person who will be chosen to represent it in a new ministry, he exerts less authority than Parliamentary leaders do in Britain or Canada or Australasia. This seems due not altogether to the absence of political issues sharply defined as between the various Republican groups, but partly to an exaggeration of the sentiment of equality combined with the French tendency to the assertion of individual will. So soon as any one statesman shoots ahead of others by his oratorical gifts or forceful personality, he excites first jealousy and then envy. His colleagues render to him no more allegiance than their own interests or those of the Group prescribe. His enemies talk of him as aiming at a sort of dictatorship, and the charge gives secret pleasure to some of his adherents. Thus Gam-betta fell at the moment when he seemed strongest. Seldom has a Parliamentary chief so strong a hold on the country outside as to find in its support a means for securing the loyalty of his following in the Chamber. At general elections, the names of the chief statesmen are no talismans: they may, indeed, be scarcely mentioned. No one since Gambetta, except perhaps Waldeck Eousseau at the election of 1902, has been a popular figure, a name wherewith to conjure, in the same sense as were Peel, Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli, in Britain, or as Macdonald and Laurier were in Canada, or as Parkes in New South Wales, or Seddon in New Zealand.1 This fact has something to do with the atmosphere of personal intrigue which has long suffused the French Chamber. If parties were tightly organized, they might find an advantage in having a recognized leader and making much of him. But only the Socialists are so organized, and they are the last who would seek to exalt one man above his fellows.
This passion for equality, this dislike of authority, this incessant striving for prominence and influence among the deputies, each descrying a ministerial portfolio at the end of the vista, finds another expression in the constant struggle on the part of the Chamber (and its Committees) to assert itself against the ministry and grasp more and more of executive power. The Commissions are already even stronger than the Committees of the Senate and the House in America, and their leading members are wont to express surprise that there is not a similar effort in the British House of Commons to overbear the ministry.
The every-day work which the Chamber performs may be classified as (a) legislation, (b) criticism of executive departments, (c) displacement of ministries. In legislation the contrast between measures introduced and measures passed is startling. A deputy finds their introduction an easy means of attracting notice, and can thus please his constituents, whom he deluges with copies. A first and second reading are readily granted on the plea of urgency, but the great majority go no further, being stifled or shelved in the Commissions. Proposals on subjects of importance brought in by a minister have a better chance, but may emerge from a Commission so changed as to be scarcely recognizable. Comparatively few are passed into law. Questions of the first magnitude, debated session after session, remain long unsettled. This happens in all legislatures, but perhaps most frequently in France, not merely because the Commission system and the group system hamper the power of a ministry, but for a deeper reason also, viz. the existence of the Civil Code, which has permanently fixed so many principles of private civil law as to induce a dislike of innovations, for in the French mind, which superficial observers have called volatile, there is a strong vein of conservatism. E'ew questions, economic and social, have emerged, especially during the last half-century, which the Code does not cover, but the Chamber does not find in legislation its chief interest, as is realized by those who notice how scanty is the attendance when important Bills are under discussion. Its delight is in personal matters and those “live issues” which affect the fortunes of a government. Any mistake made by a Minister, any conduct which can be represented as having either a pro-clerical or an anti-clerical tendency, any act which either offends the Labour Unions or betrays subservience to them, leads to animated debates which may shake the ministry if it be weak, or accentuate hostility if it is defiant. Such acts furnish pretexts for resorting to that favourite method of attacking a Cabinet which is called the Interpellation. The deputy gives notice that he will interrogate a minister on some declaration made or administrative act done by him. The interpellation consists of a speech denouncing the conduet or the policy blamed, and asking the Prime Minister, or the Minister personally responsible, for an explanation. Neither the Cabinet nor the particular Minister is obliged to accept the debate on the spot, so usually a later day is fixed for the interpellation. When that day has arrived and the debate has run its course, a motion is made for passing to the Order of the day (i.e. proceeding to the next business on the paper). Then arises the opportunity for defeating the Cabinet. The Ordre du jour can be either pur et simple or motive. The Ordre pur et simple is a motion stating, without any word of praise or blame for the Administration, that, the debate being at an end, the House resumes its previously appointed work. The Ordre du jour motive adds to this resolution some words approving or condemning the conduct of the Ministry, the favourable resolutions coming from the friends, the unfavourable from the enemies of the Cabinet. The skill of the Opposition is shown in so phrasing their motions as to rope in the largest number possible of groups hostile to the ministry, while introducing something against which a group likely to befriend the ministry will find it hard to vote. Before the division the Ministry declare which of these ordres du jour they are disposed to accept. If they carry it, they are back into smooth water. If defeated, their bark goes down. These interpellations are the field-days of politics, rousing the greatest excitement, and drawing crowds of spectators. If the Cabinet has lost moral authority, or if it becomes known that it is riven by internal dissensions, almost any pretext will serve. Such a pretext is seldom found in matters of foreign policy, for an honourable tradition disposes men to avoid anything that could weaken France in the face of the outer world. Ministries fall more frequently by these interpellations than in divisions on legislative or financial measures, and they may fall quite suddenly, perhaps by an unexpected combination of groups, perhaps by want of promptitude in accepting, or themselves devising, the ordre du jour motive which will carry them safely down the rapids.
The public business of the Chamber is not, however, the chief care of the deputy. He has private work to do which affects not only his own personal fortunes but the exercise of the functions discharged in public sittings. The relations (already described) which he maintains with his constituents oblige him to be in constant contact with the administrative departments. Only from the latter can he obtain the favours which he owes to the former. Ministers dispense the honours, the medals and ribands, the administrative posts, mostly of small consequence, the tobacco licences, and even the college bursaries. To them the deputy goes when the commune or the arrondissement desires a bridge or a road, when a farmer wants to be compensated for damage done to his vines by a hail-storm, when a taxpayer disputes the tax-gatherer's claim, when a parent wishes to have an indulgent view taken of his son's performances in an examination, when a litigant thinks that a word of recommendation might help him in a court of justice.1 The constituent writes to the deputy and the deputy approaches the minister, and when either a grant of money to the commune, or a riband, or a salaried post is in question, the minister is made to understand that the deputy's support at the next critical division will be affected by the more or less benevolent spirit the Administration displays. Thus besides the great game of politics played by the parties in the Chamber, besides the pressure of the Commissions upon the Administration, there is a continuous process of triangular trafficking between the constituents, the deputy, and the ministers, which is, to the two latter, always vexatious and often humiliating. A somewhat similar process went on once in England, and is not extinct, though now much attenuated, in the United States. Its prevalence in France, where the grosser forms of corruption are comparatively slight, is due to the concentration in the National Government of the whole administrative machinery of the country, every local functionary being appointed from Paris, and the cost of most kinds of local, public work being defrayed by the national treasury.2 A French Administration might well desire to have less far extended power, for its power is its weakness.
The Chamber is full of talent because, though many of the members have come from narrow surroundings and retain narrow views, the quickness and flexibility of the French mind enable them to adjust themselves to the conditions of a large assembly more readily than would most Englishmen or Americans. When an exciting moment arrives, the debates reach a high level of excellence. Repartees are swift and bright, and great tactical skill is displayed in escaping dangers or forming combinations on the spur of the moment. Turbulent scenes occur, but none worse than have once or twice occurred both in Congress and in the House of Commons, nor has violence approached the pitched battles of Buda Pest, where benches were broken, and inkstands hurtled through the air. There is little personal rancour, even among those who are most bitterly opposed in politics. Deputies will abuse one another in the Chamber and forthwith fraternize in the corridors, profuse in compliments on one another's eloquence. The atmosphere is one of a friendly camaraderie, which condemns acridity or vindictiveness. Parisians say that the level of manners has declined since 1877, and the style of speaking altered, with a loss of the old dignity. Wit may be as abundant, but one misses that philosophic thought by which the Assemblies of 1848 and 1871 impressed the nation and won the admiration of Europe.
The deputy receives a salary of 15,000 francs (£600 = £2800) a year. The sum used to be 9000 francs, but in 190G the deputies voted themselves an increase up to the present figure, rather to the displeasure of the country. Are they then fairly described as professional politicians? The mere fact of payment does not make them so, any more than it does the members of the British and Australian Parliaments. Comparatively few have entered the Chamber merely to make a living, though there are many whose effort to remain there is more active because they have abandoned their former means of livelihood. It would have been practically impossible not to pay those who quit their avocations to give their whole time to politics. Payment may not have done much to lower the moral standard of political life: it may indeed have enabled some to resist the temptations which surround them, yet it necessarily tends to make them eager to keep their seats, and in so far affects their independence.1 They are not, as a rule, closely held to the terms of their electoral professions of faith, though proposals have been submitted to the Chamber that the popular mandate of any one who has disregarded these professions should be deemed, and if necessary judicially pronounced, to have been forfeited. It is customary for a deputy to appear before his constituents at least once a year, as in England, and to give a review of the political situation, which furnishes an opportunity for questioning him on his conduct. It is not, however, by his action in the grande politique of the Chamber that a deputy (other than a Socialist) usually stands or falls. Those few who are supposed to represent great financial or commercial interests need not greatly fear the attacks of extreme partisans in their districts, for they are likely to have the means provided them of securing by various influences the fidelity of the bulk of their constituents.
The chief differences between the professional politician of France and him of America is that the latter depends even more on his party organization than on what he secures for his constituents, that he can seldom count on a long tenure of his seat or of an administrative post, and that he can more easily find a business berth if he is sent back to private life. The number of those who belong to the class described in America as “professionals “is of course far larger there than in France, for it includes a host of persons who are not members of legislatures, most of the work they do being of a humbler kind.
In the election of 1919 out of 626 seats all but 50 were filled on the first balloting. For these a second balloting took place.
The great banks and financial companies are said to subscribe to the funds of some of the parties, but apparently not to such an extent as that which led to the legal prohibition in the United States of such contributions.
André Siegfried, Tableaux Pohtiques de la France de l'Ouest
A darker (and, so far as I can judge, overdrawn) picture as respects bribery, intimidation, and election frauds is presented by Hasbach, Moderne Demokratic, pp. 560-563, who, however, describes southern France rather than northern.
M. Felix Faure (afterwards President of the Republic) said in 1893 that functionaries are often more preoccupied in giving satisfaction to the Ministry of to-morrow than to that which they actually represent. (I quote from Mr. J. E. C. Bodley's France.)
That this frequently happened in England sixty or seventy years ago was one of the grounds alleged for transferring the trial of election petitions to the judges in 1867
I omit many details regarding these Bureaux and Commissions which are not necessary for a comprehension of the working of the Chamber.
The names were occasionally published between 1871 and 1885. The official record now states the names of deputies who did not vote, or were absent on leave, or were detained by attendance at the Budget Commission. The names of members voting in divisions in the British House of Commons were not recorded before the passing of the Reform Act of 1832.
The Chamber elected in 1919 contained 140 advocates, 44 journalists or men of letters, 4 Catholic priests, and 3 Protestant clergymen.
Between 1881 and 1910 the percentage of abstentions ranged in Western France from 24 to 32 per cent.
The numbers were for Continental France, without Alsace-Lorraine — electors, 11,048,092; votes east, 7,801,879; and for Alsace-Lorraine — electors, 397,610; votes cast, 328,924.
In 1914 the party groups in the Chamber of Deputies were the following. I give them as from Eight to Left:
In 1920 there were stated to be besides twenty-one “non-inserits” deputies more or less detached, but classifiable in a general way with the Left, the following eight groups:
Of these the largest were No. 4 with 93 and No. 6 with 86 members. At the election of 1919, which took place under the influence of a reaction against Socialism, there was a certain co-operation between the Right and the Centre parties.
Of the “Nationalists,” who can hardly be described as a party or group but who represent a tendency affecting the members of several groups, I shall speak later.
There was in the House of Commons a so-called Radical group from 1870 till 1880, and a sort of “Neo-Conservative “group from 1880 till 1885, the latter very small but very active, and containing men of importance. Of the present House and its varying groups the time has not come to speak. British Parliamentarism seems to be entering a new phase of development.
The constitutional arrangements of the United States and Switzerland scarcely permit a comparison between leadership in France and leadership in those countries.
It is not to be supposed that in these latter cases justice suffers. It is easy to write a letter which can be read between the lines.
M. Poincare, speaking in the Chamber in 1912 (June 25) observed: “Nous sommes obliges d'employer la plus grande partie de notre activity a des beBognes fastidieuses, a des demarches ingrates et nous en arrivons sous la passion des influences locales a considerer comme une necessity vitale pour conserver notre mandat notre ingfirence quotidienne dans toutes les questions administratives.”
Rousseau wrote: “Sitôt que le service public cesse d'être la principal affaire des citoyens, et qu'ils aiment mieux servir de leur bourse que de leur personne, 1'État est déjà près de sa mine” (Contrat Social, iii. 15).