PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy secured one of France’s biggest constitutional changes in 50 years on Monday when legislators passed a law he promised would reinforce the powers of the country’s traditionally weak parliament.
The reforms were among the main pledges of Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign and, together with Prime Minister Francois Fillon, he lobbied hard for a deal with the opposition Socialists and potential rebels in his own party.
But the outcome had been in doubt in the days running up to the vote by the two houses of parliament sitting in special joint session and the result was only one vote more than the three-fifths majority required.
Parliament has long wanted more power to balance the dominant role of the president, but the opposition Socialists and some UMP members say Sarkozy’s proposed reforms do not go far enough and represent no significant gains for legislators.
Speaking during a visit to Ireland, Sarkozy hailed the vote, which he described as a victory for French democracy.
“I’m delighted and I’m encouraged to continue, together with the government of Francois Fillon, the implementation of the essential reforms France needs to be an exemplary country in Europe,” he told a news conference in Dublin.
The law sets a two-term limit for presidents, subjects certain presidential appointments to parliamentary approval and allows parliament to set half of its own agenda instead of the government deciding the entire program.
The president will be able to address parliament directly, a privilege he does not have now.
The reform will also enable France to approve the accession of new members into the European Union under certain conditions by parliamentary ratification instead of through a referendum.
Parliamentary approval would be needed for any military operation abroad lasting more than four months.
The National Assembly (the lower house) and the Senate debated the bill for months and the process reached its climax on Monday in the special joint session of both houses at the chateau of Versailles outside Paris.
Sarkozy promised during his election campaign last year to address an old grievance that the constitution gives legislators too little clout compared with the powerful president, but the Socialists said the new law brought little real change.
“This text does not contain the counterweights, the guarantees which would allow us to avoid the risk of a concentration of powers, what we call a monocracy,” Socialist spokesman Arnaud Montebourg told France Info radio.
The 1958 charter was written under Charles de Gaulle, France’s wartime hero who became president that year. He had himself in mind when he gave the presidency sweeping powers.
Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, reduced the presidential term to five years from seven but Sarkozy says his own reform proposal is more radical.
The Socialists, however, criticized the lack of any statutory right of reply for the opposition to televised appearances by the president and were angry that the bill did not reform the voting system for the Senate.
Senators are elected by a complex collegiate system that has in effect blocked the left from winning a majority of seats even when it is in power. The right has had a majority in the Senate since the constitution came into force in 1958.
(Additional reporting by Thierry Leveque and James Mackenzie)
Writing by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Robert Hart