Second Houses – What they do elsewhere

French senate a regular irritant to presidents

The base pension of French senators on retirement is €4,382 per month. They enjoy free transportation by air, rail and taxi.

The base pension of French senators on retirement is €4,382 per month. They enjoy free transportation by air, rail and taxi.

Tue, Oct 1, 2013, 01:04

The French national assembly is often accused of being a rubber stamp for the executive. Less so the senate, which has repeatedly clashed with political leaders.

When he was president, Gen Charles de Gaulle was angry that the senate blocked his territorial reform.

He tried to curtail the senate’s legislative powers through a referendum in 1969, lost the vote and resigned.

The right and centre held the majority in the senate from the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 until 2011, when the left won a majority.

Founded in the aftermath of the revolution as a “council of the aged”, it has always been perceived as a conservative body.

The national assembly and senate debate and vote on all French laws, until the two chambers’ texts are identical. If they cannot reconcile their differences, the assembly, which is elected by universal suffrage, has the last word.

Frustrated by the conservative senate, then socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin shocked many of his compatriots by calling it “an anomaly among democracies” in 1998.

And although the socialists now hold a six-seat majority in the senate, it has on occasion voted against the socialist government.

A prime example is president François Hollande’s law to ban multiple electoral mandates, such as deputies and senators who remain mayors.

The law passed in the assembly, but was voted down in the senate, with some socialist senators arguing that national representatives need to be “anchored” locally.

“Public opinion is asking ‘What’s this institution that hangs on to its privileges?’” a high-ranking senate employee commented, referring to the law on mandates.

Senators receive a monthly salary of €7,100, non-taxable operating expenses of €6,037, plus an allowance of €7,548 to hire assistants. Their base pension on retirement is €4,382 per month. They enjoy free transportation by air, rail and taxi.

Their Paris hotel bills are reimbursed when the senate is in session.

The 2013 budget for the senate is €336.5 million, of which €12.5 million pays for the maintenance of the Luxembourg gardens. The Palais du Luxembourg, built by Queen Marie de Medici, is the seat of the institution, and each senator has an office there, free of charge.

Senators are elected for six years by 150,000 elected officials, including 36,000 mayors, as well as national assembly deputies and city and regional councillors.

The system is weighted in favour of rural France.