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Sarkozy's constitutional reform goes to parliament

Latest update : 2008-05-21

French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to introduce substantial changes to the country's constitution, but he will need support from the opposition to push his controversial bill through with a three-fifths majority.

President Nicolas Sarkozy faces a crucial new test of his reform drive on Tuesday as a flagship bill aimed at overhauling the French constitution begins its perilous journey through parliament.
  
Sarkozy championed the text, which would among other things boost the powers of parliament, set a two-term limit for presidents, allow the head of state to defend his policies before parliament, and set a ban on budget deficits.
  
The right-wing leader intended the wide-ranging reform of the 1958 French constitution to make the head of state more accountable to lawmakers and to the public.
  
But the text has met with a barrage of protests, both from Sarkozy's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and the main opposition Socialist Party and its adoption appeared far from certain.
  
"It's going to be tight, we need to take a bite into the left without losing out on the right," Prime Minister Francois Fillon was quoted as saying in Le Figaro newspaper last week.
  
After weeks of behind-the-scenes dealing, Fillon will defend a heavily-amended version of the text before the lower house National Assembly Tuesday evening, the start of a seven-week legislative process.
  
To become law the text requires final approval from three fifths of lawmakers at a special congress of both houses of parliament on July 7, for which Sarkozy will need strong support across party lines.
  
Opposition in both camps has cristallised around the idea of letting the president come before parliament, seen as a threat to the separation of executive and legislative powers.
  
Since 1873, the French president has been barred from appearing in person before the National Assembly or the Senate in the name of the separation of powers.
  
A likely compromise -- which has met with cautious approval so far -- would be for the head of state to address parliament once a year, on the model of the US state of the nation speech.
  
Hackles were raised in Sarkozy's camp by plans to scrap automatic referendums on the entry of new European Union members, a measure introduced in 2004 to reassure French voters opposed to Turkey joining the bloc.
  
But the text has since been amended back to uphold the need for a referendum for any new entrant making up more than five percent of the EU's population.
  
Many right-wing lawmakers also oppose plans to limit use of an emergency measure that enables the government to push through a law by decree, while the left wants it reined in further still.
  
Other sticking points surround the creation of new parliament powers to assess the government's work -- both sides want firmer measures -- and changes to the legislative process.
  
Meanwhile a last-minute amendment to the text, that would set a constitutional ban on budget deficits, was attacked by the Socialists Monday as a political cheap shot.
  
Socialist leader Francois Hollande has set an extra condition for his support, for the president's airtime to be taken into account in the division of media coverage between political parties, on which the UMP hopes to strike a compromise deal this week.
  
But Socialist deputy Arnaud Montebourg -- a vocal advocate of constitutional reform -- has warned his camp against scuppering a historic chance to increase the powers of parliament.
  
Tuesday's debate kicks off hours after a tense vote on a new version of a controversial bill on genetically-modified (GM) crops, which was unexpectedly thrown out by left-wing lawmakers last week after UMP deputies failed to turn out in its support.
  
Opposition deputies accuse the government of forcing through a bill that lacks sufficient safeguards for non-GM farmers.
  
The National Assembly will debate the constitutional text until Monday,  with a vote expected next Tuesday, before it moves on to the Senate.

Date created : 2008-05-20

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