French on brink of another revolution

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The Independent Online

France is heading towards its biggest constitutional upheaval in four decades: shortening the seven-year presidential term to five years to reduce the chances of "co-habitation", or power sharing between left and right.

Both President Jacques Chirac (Gaullist) and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (socialist) are ready to push for a referendum to introduce the change before the next presidential election in May 2002. An announcement is expected this week.

Mr Jospin has long supported the idea of making both the presidential and parliamentary terms five years, to increase the chances that one political family - left or right - will control both parts of the governing machine. The presidency and prime ministership have fallen into opposing camps three times in the past 14 years.

Mr Chirac has been converted to the idea; he will be 70 at the next election and his advisers have persuaded him he is more likely to be re-elected for five years than seven.

Both men have also been galvanised into action by a move by the former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who tabled a parliamentary proposal for a constitutional change last week. Neither Mr Jospin nor Mr Chirac wanted to allow the unpopular Mr Giscard any credit for, or control over, the reform. They set aside their own differences with almost indecent haste. Mr Jospin is expected to announce this week that he will propose a draft constitutional change "in the name of the President".

The proposal would have to be agreed by a two-thirds vote in both the National Assembly and Senate and then go to a popular vote. An opinion poll at the weekend confirmed several earlier findings, showing that about 75 per cent of the electorate would back the change.

Opponents of reform fall into two groups: those who argue that it would diminish the presidency and those who argue that it would make the presidency too strong.

Supporters say it would restore the balance between the two institiutions that was envisaged by Charles de Gaulle when he created the Fifth Republic by a series of constitutional changes in 1958-62. De Gaulle wanted a strong presidency, which could control the broad direction of events but float above the unpleasant everyday details of government.

By bringing in line parliamentary and presidential terms, supporters of the reform argue it would restore the primacy of the presidency, just as De Gaulle intended. Now, the President has little direct control over domestic policy, unless he belongs to the same political family as the Prime Minister.

Left-wing opponents of the change fear a re-empowered presidency would erode parliamentary power and make France less democratic. Right-wing opponents tend to argue the opposite: that a President more closely associated with the length of a parliamentary term would become no more than a glorified Prime Minister.

Two questions remain to be decided. Mr Giscard has proposed a two-term limit on the new five-year presidency; whether Messrs Chirac and Jospin will accept this idea is unclear. Second, they have yet to agree on when a referendum should be held. Mr Jospin wants a rapid vote; Mr Chirac fears an early decision would bring pressure on him to resign.

Nothing in the reform would ensure an end to co-habitation. There is some evidence that the electorate, unlike the parties, rather likes the idea of forcing politicians to co-operate.