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Sarkozy has de Gaulle's constitution tailored

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin) - Thanks to President Nicolas Sarkozy's hard work, France now has a modernized Constitution.

Reforming state institutions was Sarkozy's motto at last year's elections. The French Congress, including the Senate and the National Assembly, approved the amendments to the current Constitution during a session at the Palace of Versailles.

Almost all the opposition, mainly socialists, communists and Green Party members, voted against, but the bill scrapped through with 539 for and 357 against, clearing the required three-fifths majority by just one vote.

Sarkozy's supporters say that the most important thing is the result and the triumph of democracy.

47 of 89 articles (nearly half) of the Constitution have been amended. Now a president has a two-term limit, each term lasting for five years; the appointment of ministers must be approved by Parliament, the executive branch of power needs authorization from Parliament to send French troops abroad on a tour of duty exceeding four months; Parliament defines half of the legislative agenda, previously sent to the deputies from the government; any EU expansion agreement must be put to a referendum if not approved by a three-fifths majority of both houses (this is said to be against any EU expansion in general). The president is granted the right to directly address joint sessions of both houses of Parliament, of which he has been deprived since 1873 and which was previously allowed only to the prime minister.

In any other country such a change would arouse great excitement. Such a dramatic rewriting of a nation's "code of conduct" for its citizens, ministers and MPs is no ordinary event. No such thing has happened in France for 50 years, but nonetheless it went surprisingly smoothly.

For the birthplace of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, it was a normal day. And that is not so much because most of France is on its summer holidays, as because of the French Constitution itself.

France has made an outstanding contribution to the development of global constitutional practice. Russian constitutions from various periods are mostly copies of the French ones. The problem is that the French have been in an uninterrupted process of creating new constitutions or rewriting the previous ones since 1791. French constitutions always seem to have space left for improvement.

In the more than 200 years since the Great French Revolution, the country of Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite has had four republics (today's France is the Fifth Republic) and two empires. Monarchies have been changed to constitutional monarchies and back to republics again, while successive regimes constantly worked on new constitutions. For over two centuries, the light-minded Gauls "tried on" over two dozen constitutions, constitutional acts and charters.

A major legal scholar, Professor Marcel Prelot once said that France is a laboratory for constitutions to every taste. The French are so used to it that to them any amendment is like a routine fitting at the tailor's.

Sarkozy presented the changes as a step toward a perfect democracy and restriction of presidential powers in favor of Parliament, the people and France.

It's hard to imagine any president who would voluntarily restrict his own powers, least of all Nicolas Sarkozy. "Ambitious" would be too mild a word to characterize his "interest" in power. He is an unprecedented phenomenon.

It has been said that the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic needs amendment because it was tailored for just one man, Charles de Gaulle. France hasn't seen such a charismatic political leader since. After he left office France from time to time considered restricting the presidential powers. Half-president, half-monarch, de Gaulle saved France from severe post-war crises. The half-monarch, half-president that Sarkozy wants to be is a different thing.

Introducing a two-term limit for presidents is no big improvement of democracy, as no French president has ever stayed at the Elysee Palace any longer than two terms. The limitation of the term from seven to five years in 2002 was much more important.

The socialists say Sarkozy has merely "swept the crumbs from his table" to Parliament, retaining the major powers. Some papers say Sarkozy and his team kept bribing and intimidating deputies right up to the beginning of the vote. The regional paper La Montagne reports that MPs were put under pressure, offered subsidies, ministerial offices or promotion, and one deputy was even threatened with his electoral district's frontiers being changed and his mandate abolished.

Socialist Senator Robert Badinter said these kinds of reforms change everything except for the monocracy, the power of one man over the republic. Socialists say, Sarko "added some cement to his part of the lopsided house, taking several bricks from Parliament's part." Why not, as there's no end to improving the French Constitution in sight?

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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