Irish treaty referendum causes stir in French election

Thu, Mar 1, 2012, 00:00

THE GOVERNMENT’S decision to put the EU fiscal treaty to a referendum has pushed the issue centre-stage in France’s election campaign, with politicians from the right and left calling for Paris to follow suit.

The Socialist Party’s Ségolène Royal, who is campaigning for the presidential frontrunner, François Hollande, said France should follow Ireland’s example and call a plebiscite on the pact.

“Leaders are very wary about referendums at the moment, but I think that on certain big issues, we must have the courage to consult the people,” Ms Royal said.

Mr Hollande declined to comment on the Irish referendum. However, many within the party hierarchy, scarred by memories of how the public vote on the ill-fated European constitution divided its members in 2005, would be reluctant to call for a similar ballot to be held in France.

Mr Hollande has said that if he were elected president in May, he would seek to renegotiate the treaty to give it a stronger emphasis on economic growth.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who played a pivotal role in drafting the fiscal pact, has ruled out holding a referendum, saying he couldn’t see how a “clear question” could be put to the people on such a complex document.

The news from Ireland was seized on by the far-right National Front, however.

“Unlike the France of Nicolas Sarkozy, Ireland has just demonstrated that she is still a democracy worthy of the name,” said party leader Marine Le Pen.

“If adopted, this budgetary pact the Siamese twins Sarkozy and Hollande want to introduce would rob France of its budgetary freedom and trap it into endless austerity. France must rejoin the path of democracy by following Ireland’s example.”

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a former member of Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party who is running for the presidency as an independent, described the Irish Government’s decision as “a great victory for democracy”.

On the left, the strongest calls for a referendum came from the Parti de Gauche, whose candidate for the presidency, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is at about 10 per cent in opinion polls.

The party said it would support Sinn Féin and Ireland’s Socialist Party, which belong to its political group in the European Parliament, in “this decisive battle”.

Mr Hollande’s reaction to calls for a referendum will be closely watched in the coming days for signs of a split within his party.

Earlier this month, he told French television that the only two subjects that merited a referendum would be “a major change to our institutions” or “where there are significant transfers of sovereignty”.

Even if Mr Sarkozy wins a second presidential term in May, he would need a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament to enact the fiscal treaty, making it possible for the socialists to block the process.

It is widely believed that Mr Hollande, having been careful not to specify any red lines on the treaty, would back down from his calls for renegotiation if elected president.

In 1997, when his party colleague Lionel Jospin became prime minister, the socialists watered down their demand for renegotiation of the European Stability Pact and settled for a summit on growth and jobs.