Anyone who knows Luxembourg singer-songwriter Serge Tonnar’s song “Crémant an der Chamber” (Crémant in parliament), will be surprised to find out that alcohol is banned in the bar of the parliament.
Photo: LaLa La Photo
Delano managed to get a peek at what happens in parliament besides the plenary sessions. Currently, a staff of almost 100 is involved in preparing, assisting in parliamentary committees, planning events, managing the IT software, and many other things that make parliament work.
The Chamber of Deputies is housed in three buildings: the Hôtel de la chambre, as they call it, is the main building which holds the plenary room. Then there is the Printz Richard building and the Wiltheim building, which houses the administrative personnel.
Printz Richard is named after the hardware store which used to be located there. After extensive renovations (including a glass bridge which links it to the main building and solar panels on the roof), the building now hosts several committee meeting rooms, the library, the offices of the legal assistants to the parliamentary committees, the bar, and the IT team, which is tucked under the roof.
The building still has old elements, such as some doors, the wooden staircase and the library in the vaulted cellar. But the impressive hallway, the meeting rooms and the bar are all very modern and sleek.
The library holds around 7,000 books, the oldest is from 1876. Until the 1970s, all speeches and parliamentary records were in French, explained Estelle Beck, the librarian.
Busy days, even when there are no plenary sessions
The legal assistants are all assigned to specific parliamentary committees. They do the research on the various bills, provide legal advice and follow the work of the committee by writing the reports.
Rachel Moris is in charge of the sustainable development committee, for example. Christophe Li takes care of legal affairs, and Caroline Guezennec has the mighty committee on finances and budget in her care. Tania Sonetti is in charge of the health sector and has been very busy with the new law on hospitals.
A committee was about to meet during Delano’s visit on Thursday; people were arriving slowly. Members of parliament, the assistant of the committee, but also civil servants who have been asked to contribute to the discussions, take part in these meetings. This meeting of the committee on sustainable development was about to reflect on the opinion of the council of state on the draft bill on public procurement contracts.
The speaker of parliament occupies a corner office of the building, with a full view of the rue Marché-aux-herbes. Kept in muted tones, Mars Di Bartolomeo nevertheless managed to make the space his own. He was keen to point out the owl with a red furry head made by Liz May, the triathlete, and the green frog sitting on a treasure chest which contains the milk teeth of one of his children.
He was preparing the press conference with Marco Schank. Schank (CSV) is the chair of the committee of public petitions, and was going to present a first evaluation of the process of submitting petitions, and point to ways going forward. As they were both set to speak, they were checking who should say what and when.
Next to the office is the formal salon, where the speaker welcomes and has talks with official guests. Set in muted tones, its centrepiece is a stunning painting by Roland Schauls.
In the middle of the first floor sits Marc Baulesch, an institution in himself. He has been huissier (usher) at the Chamber of Deputies since the 1990s. He explained that parliament has on average 1-2 international visits per week, and that there were 683 meetings and 46 plenary sessions in 2015/2016. He is in charge of making delivery orders, of the public sessions, of the flags and sashes, and importantly also making sure the international visits go smoothly.
Up a few flights of stairs, the attic is occupied by a bustling team of IT staff. Several of them work for private firms, who are in charge of setting up new programmes or carrying out new projects on a temporary basis. The attic has a very different feel to the rest of the building, with its wooden beams and wooden roof. It is separated in two parts, with a meeting room in the middle.
Downstairs, the press conference was about to start in one of the meeting rooms. Several journalists listened to the evaluations of the petitions process by Schank. He said that since 2014, 442 petitions had been submitted to parliament; 23 had managed to fulfil the criteria of 4,500 signatures to warrant a public debate in parliament.
Schank and Di Bartolomeo said that petitions were a good way to create debates on certain topics and have people participate in the democratic process.
Representing the nation
Onwards to the building which is commonly called the “chamber” or “Krautmaart” (in rue Marché-aux-herbes). In 1860, it became the seat of parliament.
Since then, the Chamber of Deputies only had to leave the parliament building on two occasions: from 1940 to 1944, when after the dissolution of parliament, the Nazi occupiers repurposed it as provincial propaganda office; and from 1997 to 1999 when the building was extensively renovated and extended.
It includes now one of the most modern IT infrastructure of any parliaments. Downstairs, on the right to the public entrance and after security, there is the broadcast control room with several monitors for TV recording and sound checking.
Upstairs, you can find the public gallery, which is quite small. Some seats are reserved for the press, but its members also have a dedicated room downstairs where they can follow the debate and write their articles. Also upstairs are two glass walled rooms overlooking the plenary; one is for the translators and the other is the cutting room for Maurice Molitor, the leader of the public relations team and presenter of Chamber TV.
Official guests arrive by the stairs on the side of rue Marché-aux-herbes. This is where they are welcomed by the speaker of parliament, write a note in the golden book, and are then taken via the grand staircase to the salon, just behind the plenary.
The plenary room has been extensively renovated. Pale green silk wallpaper contrasts with the reddish faux marble pillars. MPs have the latest technology at their disposal. Besides electronic voting, they all have a computer on which they can see details, statistics and explanations if a speaker wishes to show them to add weight to their arguments.
Behind the speaker’s seat, on the left, is the office of the secretary responsible for the “conference of the presidents” (which is all the leaders of the political party blocs in parliament). Maria Mathieu is responsible for the daily programme, setting up the meetings and preparing the order of speakers, while her colleague is in charge of all the parliamentary questions and the draft legislations.
Across the street is the Wiltheim building, a former Dresdner Bank office which also has a different feel to the other buildings. In the basement, the safes have been kept and they now contain the gifts from the different foreign dignitaries. International relations, public relations, accounts, HR and other departments have their home here.
Fabiola Cavallini, who works in public relations, explained that they have around 90 visits per year, mostly from school classes but also from tourists.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article mis-identified the speaker’s party affiliation. This was updated on 16 June 2017.