Chirac places power of parliament centre stage

FJacques Chirac yesterday undertook to restore the "balance of power that De Gaulle had wanted" between the different branches of power in France and return to parliament its "central role". He also proposed two constitutional amendments and parliamentary reforms in an attempt to reduce what he called "the growing distance between the people and those whose job it is to represent them".

Mr Chirac called for the changes in a message conveyed to special sessions of the two houses of parliament yesterday. The constitution does not permit a president to address parliament in person, so his speech was read out by Philippe Seguin in the National Assembly and Rene Monory in the Senate.

Most members of the new government, including the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, were in the National Assembly chamber with the MPs to hear that in the President's view the balance of power had tipped too far in the government's favour and needed to be tilted back towards parliament.

Mr Chirac's proposed constitutional changes are a provision to allow wider use of referendums, and another to change the parliamentary session from a maximum five and a half months a year to a continuous nine-month session. The President had promised the first during his election campaign as a means of tackling the "democratic deficit". The second is seen partly as a concession to Mr Seguin, who has long advo- cated a single, longer session.

On the need to balance the powers of the presidency, the executive and the legislature, Mr Chirac was definite: "The president presides, the government conducts the policy of the nation, and parliament is the expression of the people's will, a control on the government, and a forum where the direction of national policy is debated."

Mr Chirac said there was no longer sufficient clarity about what each branch should do, and this had reduced effectiveness.

He also proposed a requirement that all draft legislation submitted to parliament by the government be accompanied by a report setting out the likely cost and social implications; a provision for the recodification of existing laws to make them simpler and accessible to all; and a citizen's charter, monitored by parliament, to improve the quality of public services.

In a move that suggests Brussels and Paris will no longer be quite so closely identified with each other as they were, Mr Chirac proposed changes to the working of parliament to enable it to take a more detailed look at legislation issuing from the European parliament.

As in all his statements as President, Mr Chirac stressed that his absolute priority was to reduce unemployment, and directed parliament to subordinate all its work to that end.