French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s risky bid to rewrite France’s political rules with sweeping constitutional changes worked — but just barely — with both houses of parliament meeting in special session to pass the measures by a single vote.
Fear of failure was brewing even before nearly 900 lawmakers took their seats on Monday at the Chateau of Versailles. The slim passage reflected the controversy over the reform, vehemently rejected by opposition leftists. Even within the conservative presidential camp there was disagreement, and six of those lawmakers voted against the revision.
Expectations of a close vote were so great that officials decided to hold a separate manual count in addition to the standard electronic one.
Sarkozy, who faced substantial humiliation had the vote failed, hailed the results of the vote from Dublin, where he was on a rescue mission to try to save the EU Treaty after a resounding “no” vote from the Irish.
Sarkozy was saved by a few last-minute defections, including one notable Socialist, former education minister Jack Lang, who risked being shunned by his party for helping the reform to pass.
In the end, lawmakers voted in favor of the constitutional reform 539 to 357 — one vote more than the 538 needed to pass. Any constitutional revision needs approval by a three-fifths majority.
“Once again, the camp of movement, change, modernity has won over the camp of immobilism, of rigidity, of sectarianism,” Sarkozy said.
This revision of the French Constitution is the 24th since the start of the Fifth Republic a half-century ago but the most sweeping. All previous changes passed comfortably.
The reform gives parliament greater power but also adds a new privileges to France’s already strong presidency, notably allowing the chief of state to address together the two houses of congress.
However, it limits the president to two five-year terms.
Parliament is now able to veto major presidential appointments and can reduce the government’s ability to push through legislation without a vote.
The presidency would also be required to inform parliament of any troop deployment overseas, and must win parliamentary authorization for any such deployment lasting more than four months.
France currently has troops in countries from Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Citizens, too, have gained a larger voice. Among other things, the changes allow for creation of an independent “citizens’ rights defender.” Any citizen who feels wronged by the French administration could appeal to this defender.
France’s European partners also were watching. A key measure of the constitutional revision could require French voters to approve membership of future EU entrants, such as Turkey. Voters in France generally oppose Turkish membership.
French Justice Minister Rachida Dati was unruffled by the thin victory margin.
“There was a consensus on the need to revise the Constitution,” she said.
But critics saw the revision as boosting the power of Sarkozy, already referred to as France’s “hyperpresident” because of his penchant for hands-on work.
Leaders of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party suggested the Socialists were playing politics with constitutional reform.
“Our Constitution is neither right nor left. It is our fundamental law,” French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said before the special congress opened.