French Socialists move to avert backbench revolt over fiscal treaty

 

THE FRENCH government has moved to avert an embarrassing backbench revolt on the EU fiscal treaty, warning that a close vote in parliament would weaken France on the European stage.

Members of the ruling Socialist Party’s left flank and their Green Party coalition colleagues have threatened to vote against the treaty on the grounds that its budget-balancing rule would enshrine austerity in French law.

President François Hollande’s governing bloc has a comfortable majority in both houses of parliament, which should ensure the treaty passes.

But a tight vote – or one that depended on support from the main right-wing opposition party, the UMP – would be an awkward setback for the new administration as it tries to assert itself in Europe.

It would also revive memories of the Socialist Party’s deep split over the ill-fated European Constitution in 2005, an episode that left the party leadership badly divided.

Seeking to rally the left behind the fiscal treaty, which sets tight limits on national deficits and debts, prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault argued that anything but a strong endorsement would be damaging to France.

“If we want François Hollande . . . to be strong, we must keep giving him strength,” Mr Ayrault said. “The slightest sign of parliamentary weakness, which would consist in not giving him a wide majority to ratify this new stage of integration, would mean weakening France itself.”

Campaigning for the presidency last spring, Mr Hollande endorsed the contents of the treaty negotiated by his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, but said if elected he would refuse to sign it unless EU leaders agreed on new measures to promote growth in the euro zone.

He signed off on the text at an EU summit in June after leaders agreed to a €120 billion package of growth measures and steps towards establishing a banking union and a financial transaction tax in Europe. Senior members of the Green Party, which has two cabinet members, and a number of deputies from the Socialist Party have openly opposed the treaty, however.

They argue that it entrenches austerity policies and imposes unacceptable levels of control by EU institutions over national budgets.

Others, including the National Front and the radical left-wing Front de Gauche, have called for a referendum on the text.

Opinion polls show strong public support for a ballot, with 72 per cent of respondents to a survey last month answering yes when asked whether they would like a referendum. Twenty-three per cent said no, with 5 per cent undecided.

Mr Hollande’s hope of passing the treaty quickly were lifted last month when France’s constitutional court ruled that no change to the constitution was required to adopt the pact. Such a change would have required three-fifths approval by parliament or a referendum.

A group of 15 socialist deputies wrote to Mr Hollande recently expressing their reservations and calling for the president to spell out his vision for the future of Europe. Members of another party grouping have said they will either abstain or vote against the pact.