French reform proposal rejected

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PARIS (Reuter) - France's conservative opposition yesterday dismissed constitutional reform proposals by President Francois Mitterrand as an attempt to distract voters from the Socialists' scandals and failures. They said they would boycott a consultative committee which Mr Mitterrand plans to establish to draft changes by 15 February, five weeks before parliamentary elections.

'Mr Mitterrand is inviting us to play games when France is in a real moral, economic and social crisis and the people have other concerns,' Jacques Toubon said for the Gaullist Rally for the Republic. 'We won't follow him on to this ground and if he invites us we will not sit on the consultative committee.'

Analysts said Mr Mitterrand had tried to set a trap for the right by proposing the most radical revision of the Fifth Republic constitution since de Gaulle promulgated it in 1958. His declared aim was to correct an imbalance between a strong presidency and a weak legislature. He proposed to give parliament more power, possibly reduce the presidential term of office, extend the scope for referendums, secure judicial independence and make ministers answerable to civil courts for all offences except treason.

Mr Mitterrand, 76, ignored calls for the powerful presidency to be reduced from seven to five years, saying he favoured a mandate of at least six years. But he said there was no such thing as a 'presidential domain' of control over foreign and defence policy.

Serge July, editor of Liberation, said Mr Mitterrand had dangled the bait of a shortened term and reduced presidential powers, leaving open the possibility that he might retire before his second term expires in 1995. Le Figaro asked whether it was fair for the President, in the twilight of his term, to change the rules for his successor.

Several commentators said the reforms could only be adopted by the next parliament elected in March, and likely to be dominated by the right.