Chirac stamps his mark on the constitution Chirac makes impression on the French

Changes will 'narrow the gap between people and parliament'

MARY DEJEVSKY

Versailles

Less than three months after taking office, Jacques Chirac has placed his stamp on the French constitution, easily securing the passage of three amendments through a special constitutional congress, held in the splendour of the palace of Versailles.

According to President Chirac, who initiated the amendments, they are designed to narrow the gap between parliament and people, and his supporters have described them as the most significant constitutional change since the introduction of direct elections to the presidency in 1962. Critics say they could dangerously enhance the power of the President and have called for the constitutional checks on his power to be rigorously observed.

The amendments had been voted through the two houses of parliament in record time. The merest hint that MPs might be recalled from holiday to attend a congress in mid-August was sufficient to ensure that all debates and votes were completed by last weekend.

The almost 900 deputies assembled at 3pm. The session was opened by the National Assembly Speaker, Philippe Seguin, and the amendments were introduced by the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, who defended them as revitalising democracy in the spirit of De Gaulle's Fifth Republic.

After statements, for and against, by all political groups, deputies voted in alphabetical order, starting with the letter drawn at random by the chairman, giving in a white card to vote for the amendment, a blue card against, or a red card to abstain. Cards were placed in an urn for electronic counting. They were approved by 674 votes, with 178 against. A three-fifths majority is required to change the constitution.

All were subject to detailed scrutiny and redrafting in parliament and committee. One was specifically promised by Mr Chirac in his election manifesto. This provides for referendums on social and economic policy matters. Hitherto, the scope of referendums was so restricted they were hardly used.

The second amendment, reportedly requested by Mr Seguin, extends the parliamentary year to a single session of nine months, in place of the current two three-month terms.

The third amendment curbs the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of parliament, specifically allowing police investigations into a deputy or senator while parliament is sitting, without the question having to be referred to the MP's peers.

There was a fourth amendment, which appears to be largely a tidying-up exercise, which removes the word "community" from clauses of the constitution which concern relations between France and its former colonies. It establishes a clear distinction between France's dependencies, which are treated as part of France, and its ex-colonies, now recognised as independent nations.

The provision for referendums met hostility from traditional parliamentarians, who felt the power of parliament was being reduced, and from the Socialists and Communists who believed a president might use a referendum to bypass opposition in parliament. The right has an 80 per cent majority, so the question does not arise, but this would change if the opposition obtained a much larger number of seats after the 1997 legislative elections.

The single concession offered by Mr Chirac allows parliament to debate (but not vote on) the wording of a referendum in advance. But it will not be able to discuss or alter the result. Mr Chirac has promised his first referendum will be on education reform, where professional lobbies and students have long blocked change.

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