French set to boycott vote on president's term

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The Independent Online

France will approve its most important constitutional change for 42 years on Sunday but a large majority of people will vote with their backsides and stay at home.

France will approve its most important constitutional change for 42 years on Sunday but a large majority of people will vote with their backsides and stay at home.

The referendum, on whether to reduce the presidential term from seven years to five, has been greeted with boredom, irritation and even anger by the electorate. About four in five people favour the reform but most see no reason to answer an abstract, political question when "real issues" - high petrol prices, high taxes, stagnant disposable income - remain unresolved.

A record low turn-out of 38 per cent, or less, will be seen as a stinging disavowal of all main- stream politicians and parties and especially President Jacques Chirac and the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, who sponsored the reform.

The issue has been muddied deliberately by parties to the left and right of the mainstream, who have either encouraged apathy (mostly the Communists and the far left) or advocated a "no" vote (factions of the far right).

One new anti-tax party is campaigning to persuade voters to spoil their ballot by replacing the official form with a sheet of paper calling for lower taxes, especially on petrol. Nicolas Miguet, founder and president of the RCF (Assembly of French Taxpayers), said: "If we can push the percentage of spoilt ballots up to 10 per cent, from the usual 3 or 4 per cent, we will have won a great victory.

"I believe in democracy. People should vote, not abstain. But this gives them a chance to vote for something that they care about." In 200 villages and small towns around the country, people will have no chance to vote, whether they wish to or not. A small, belligerent minority of mayors is refusing to organise the referendum. Other mayors are trying to draw attention to local grievances. All face removal from office.

The lengthy term of office has become associated in the public mind with Charles de Gaulle and his belief in a strong, aloof presidency, capable of standing above party politics. It has, in fact, existed for more than 100 years.

Both Mr Chirac and Mr Jospin have now been persuaded that the presidency should be brought in line with the five-year term of the national assembly. This would reduce the chances of the kind of power sharing between presidents and prime ministers from opposing political parties, which has hapened for 7 of the past 14 years.

Opinion polls suggest that 80 per cent of the French electorate approves the idea but fewer than 40 per cent think that it is worth interrupting their Sunday for.

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