France – Messieurs Les Deputes

THE tricolour scarf of the French depute confers privileges that may well make their brother legislators here green with envy. His services are remunerated almost as liberally as those of a general or a bishop ; he travels first class free of charge on French rail-ways ; whenever a review is given in honour of imperial or royal guests, with senators and diplomats he enjoys the privilege of a special train, stand, and refreshment booth, his wife and daughter being included in the invitation. State functions, metropolitan and provincial celebrations, the entrée of the Elysée, are enjoyed by him, to say nothing of prestige and authority ; last, but not least, the much-coveted advantage of une existence assurée, in other words, a fixed income. Is it any wonder that the Quay d’Orsay exercises magnetic influence, attracting recruits alike from learned, commercial, and rural ranks, and that politics indeed should be regarded in the light of a profession ?

” Have you professional politicians in England ? ” a Frenchman once asked me. I replied in the negative. Certainly we have no professional politicians as the terms are understood over the water.

A deputy’s pay is nine thousand francs, just L360. The sum of ten francs (8s.) is deducted monthly, and in return he receives what is called une carte de circulation, by virtue of which he is franked on every railway line throughout France, the sums deducted being made over to the railway companies. This concession dates from 1882 only. The payment of members was regulated by Articles 96 and 97 of the Constitution, March, 1849, and confirmed in February, 1872.

A seat in the Chamber, therefore, secures the average income of a professional man or civil servant in France.

Politics do not involve any sacrifice of material interests, rather the reverse. Hence it comes about that active careers are frequently exchanged for the role of legislator, and that many don the tricolour scarf as the soldier his uniform and the advocate his gown. The former must work hard and wait long before attaining the grade that entitles him to similar emoluments, and the latter must take count-less turns in the Salle des Pas Perdus before he is equally fortunate. Doctors, too, in country places, most of them begin to turn grey ere earning deputy’s pay.

The heterogeneous composition of the French Chamber thus becomes explicable. We need no longer wonder at the fact that hardly a calling but is here represented.

In the sum-total of five hundred and ninety-one actual members we find soldiers, sailors, civil engineers, medical men, veterinary surgeons and chemists, priests, philosophers, mathematicians, professors and librarians, architects, archaeologists, painters, etchers and engravers, academicians, historians, political economists, dramatists, men of letters and journalists, bankers, distillers, manufacturers, ironmasters, agriculturists and wine-growers, ” sportsmen ” thus categorized, explorers and merchant captains, shoemakers, village schoolmasters, stonemasons, potters, compositors, miners, mechanics, and lastly, cabaretiers, or publicans.

Nor is the variety of political groups hardly less note-worthy than that of rank or calling. Here are the different parties represented in the present Chamber: Republican, qualified by the following terms—radical, revolutionary, revisionist, nationalist, anti-ministerial, plebiscitaire, anti-site, moderate, socialist, progressive, liberal, independant, Catholic, conservative, radical-socialist, socialist-collectivist, Christian-revisionist, Blanquists, patriote-revolutionary, independent, parliamentary, and a further group under the head of action liberal.

Among the miscellaneous labels we find adherents of the Union démocratique and of the Appel au Peuple, royalist, Liberal Right Conservative, Conservative rallie, Nationalist plébiscitaire, anti-semite, and members of the Réforme Parlémentaire. Thus composed, it might seem matter for wonder, not that the Chamber of Deputies is so often a scene of wildly divergent opinion, rather that concord should ever reign within its walls. We must bear in mind Thiers’ famous axiom. The Republic is the form of government that divides Frenchmen the least. The French temperament is naturally far too critical to be satisfied with anything. The critical faculty dominates every other.

It strikes an English observer oddly to discern tonsured heads and priestly robes on the legislator’s bench at the Quai d’Orsay. In England our ecclesiastic must become to all intents and purposes a civilian before entering the House of Commons.

Not so in France. From the assemblage of the Tiers Etat until our own day ministers of religion have been elected as parliamentary representatives. In 1789 some of the leading spirits of the National Assembly were Protestant pastors. A priest, the celebrated Abbé Grégoire, voted for extension of civil rights to Jews and the abolition of slavery throughout the French dominions.

Ministers of the Reformed faith no longer seek election as parliamentary representatives ; but Catholic priests have not as yet followed their example. The priest does not unfrock himself when he dons the tricolour badge ; he retains his ecclesiastical character, but forfeits the stipend of abbé or vicaire. Candidates for the legislature are generally what is called prêtres libres, that is to say, men who have held no sacerdotal office paid for by the State.

Two priests sit in the present Chamber ; the first of these, the Abbé Gayraud, who describes himself as a Républicain Catholique,* represents a constituency of Brest, was formerly professor of theology and scholastic philosophy at the Catholic University of Toulouse. The second, the Abbé Lemrie, represents an electoral division of Hazebrouch (Nord), and was also formerly a professor in the Institution St. François d’Assise of that town. A Christian Socialist, the abbé has written many works on the subject.

When it is considered that the fee of a country doctor is two francs, we need hardly wonder that, irrespective of other considerations, the practice of medicine is frequently exchanged for politics. No less than fifty-three doctors sit in the actual Chamber, many of these being former mayors of their town or commune, many also authors of medical works. One eccentric figure of the Chamber in 1897 was a certain Dr. Granier, member for Pontarlier. This gentleman had been converted to Mohammedanism in Algeria, and before entering the Palais, by performing the ablutions prescribed by ritual in the Seine. The doctor was somewhat ruthlessly unseated for preaching teetotalism. As an orthodox follower of Islam, probably also as an enlightened philanthropist, he began a veritable crusade against alcoholism. As the electorate of his arrondissement consisted largely of absinthe distillers and their work-people, the result might have been foreseen.

Chemists to the number of eight keep science in countenance ; journalism is represented by forty-one members ; the army by forty-two retired officers ; and no less than a hundred and seventy-three avocats, avoués, and notaires represent the law. Surely in no other parliament are so many legists got together !

If medicine and the law are occasionally renounced in favour of politics as a profession, it would seem that legal and medical parliamentarians are generally men of local distinction or prominence. Most often a long string of dignities and titles follows their name ; they are, or have been, préfets, mayors, conseillers gész6′anz, presidents of commercial associations and societies, political, artistic, and philanthropic ; many are also authors.

The same may be said of the numerous landed proprietors sitting in the Chamber—one and all seem busiest of the busy, to have earned their seats by the performance of unremitting local services.

The Reformed Church, as I have said, is no longer represented in the Palais Bourbon. As in the little hand-book before named denominations are not given, I have no means of apportioning the sum-total under the heads of Catholic, Protestant, or Jew.

It may be asked, ” Do French people uphold the pay-ment of members ? ” My reply is, ” Not all.” On this subject a friend over the water lately expressed himself to me in somewhat strong terms. Politics, he averred, should not be regarded in the light of a profession, a livelihood. It may not be generally known that the senators are in receipt of deputy’s pay, that is to say three hundred and sixty pounds a year.

In one respect certainly they manage these things better in France. A sitting of the Chamber can be as much enjoyed by ladies as by the other sex. Stuffiness on hot days within its walls reminds one of the House of Commons, but in this respect onlookers are no worse off than legislators. The accommodation for visitors, especially lady visitors, is generous in the extreme.

The interior of the Palais Bourbon is an amphitheatre, galleries for visitors and members’ pens or boxes facing the orators’ tribunes, President’s chair and table above. The two galleries, running to right and left, are divided into loges, or boxes, each holding about a dozen people, and the two first rows are gallantly reserved for ladies. Seated at our ease we undoubtedly are, but as on especially interesting occasions gentlemen are freely admitted to standing room behind these loges, the atmosphere becomes stifling. But the discomfort is amply rewarded even on uneventful days. On the occasion of my own visit in 1900 it was M. Paul Deschanel, le beau Deschanel, as he was called, whose office it was to occupy the Presidential chair, constantly ring his big silver bell, and, failing that expedient, to hammer on the table with a ruler and shout, ” Le silence, le silence, s’il vous plait.”

Nothing of great interest or importance was going on, but the heat was torrid. Members very likely wanted to have their say and rush off to the Exhibition ; anyhow, M. Paul Deschanel’s silver bell and his ruler were perpetually in request. Below the Presidential table and the orator’s tribune were grouped the ushers, tall, gentlemanly looking individuals in blue dress-coats, wearing silver chains of office and swords.

Votes are taken by members first holding up their hands affirmatively, next negatively, the voting urns being only used when important measures are proposed. These urns are then handed round to the deputies by the ushers as they sit in their places, the results being afterwards made known by the President.

The handsome Palais Bourbon was begun by Girardini, an Italian, in 1722, for the Duchess of Bourbon, and completed and enlarged by French architects a century later. The interior is well worth visiting in detail.

The present Chamber, eighth legislative body of the Third Republic, was elected in April, 1902, and on June x was composed the so-called bureau d’age, the president being the oldest deputy present. If Frenchwomen ever obtain seats in the Palais Bourbon, this dignity will certainly be abolished. The actual president of the bureau d’age is eighty-two.

It may here be mentioned that under no previous form of government has suffrage been both universal and direct. During the various parliamentary régimes of the Revolution, as M. Rambaud points out, manhood suffrage existed, but with certain restrictions. Under the Consulate and the first Empire freedom of vote ceased to exist, the so-called representatives of the people being mere nominees of the Government.

The Restoration and July monarchy allowed a restricted parliamentary franchise only, whilst the system of official candidatures under the second Empire nullified what was nominally manhood suffrage. I add that in 187o electoral rights were granted to the Jews of Algeria. As is seen in another chapter, the legislation of the last twenty years has been eminently progressive, especially with regard to education. There is, indeed, henceforth to be an educational fête held yearly in Paris, a second anniversary certainly no less worthy of commemoration than July 14.

On June 19, 1872, was presented to the assembly, then sitting at Versailles, a petition signed by over a million citizens, for free, universal, and non-sectarian education. Ten years later the great Ferry laws carried out this programme in its entirety. The former date was lately celebrated in the Trocadero with great éclat, the President of the Republic and the Minister of Public Instruction being present at the inauguration.

Thus Lex henceforth is to have a deservedly foremost lace in the Republican calendar.