Children deputise in process of democracy

14th June 1996 at 01:00
FRANCE. A packed French National Assembly this month approved in record time legislation to forbid separation of siblings placed in care, to protect the coastline and to create more centres for homeless people.

The 577 deputies who filled the red-cushioned benches around the semi-circular chamber listened intently to the president of the lower house, Philippe Seguin, before registering their votes on electronic panels.

This parliamentary session was special. Instead of the usual assembly - overwhelmingly middle-aged and male, with only 35 women deputies - these members, more than half of them female, were all pupils in their final year at primary school.

The annual parlement des enfants or children's parliament, is a personal initiative of M Seguin, who is equivalent to Britain's Speaker. It is intended to be a practical demonstration of citizenship, familiarising the next generation with the parliamentary institutions and workings of democracy. The 12-year-olds represented every constituency, including France's overseas interests in Polynesia and the Caribbean.

The process that brought them to Paris and the National Assembly, which is housed in the ornate 18th-century Bourbon Palace, started last September, when the education ministry asked local inspectors to select 577 classes to take part. Each class elected a "deputy", drafted a Bill on a subject of their choice and devised parliamentary questions, some of which were asked on the day.

Local deputies helped by giving advice, visiting the classes or receiving the young representatives in Paris.

The number of Bills to be considered by the parliament was whittled down, first locally then by national jury, to 10. On the morning of the session, the junior deputies discussed all the motions in committees before deciding which one to vote for. The children spent the afternoon in the debating chamber, where they first listened to speeches from M Seguin, Guy Drut, minister for youth and sports, representing the government, and Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, president of the national assembly of Quebec.

Then they took the vote. The winning motion came from the Pasteur B school of Limeil Brevannes in the Ile de France. It proposed limiting or banning the separation of brothers and sisters placed in temporary care, an experience that had affected pupils at the school.

The second place went to a Bill in favour of protecting the coastline from pollution and guaranteeing the quality of sea water; and third place to a Bill requiring local authorities to provide more homeless reception centres.

But a motion to "prepare young French people to become active and responsible European citizens" came second to last, with only 14 votes.

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