François Hollande wins approval to revise constitution

Controversial move on stripping nationality from terrorists squeaks by on slim margin

The National Assembly approved French president François Hollande’s constitutional revision on Wednesday by a vote of 317 deputies for, 199 against and 51 abstentions.

The uncertain future of the revision nonetheless remains a political nightmare for the French leader.

Mr Hollande announced the revision in a speech before both houses of the French Congress on November 16th, three days after jihadist attacks killed 130 people in Paris.

At the end of his speech, deputies and senators rose in a standing ovation, a rare show of national unity.

The president mistakenly believed he enjoyed broad support for two amendments, one to define the conditions of the state of emergency and one to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorism.

Those holding French citizenship alone were to be exempted, because international law bans governments from creating stateless people.

The question has dominated French politics for three months, fracturing right and left within their own parties, and leading to the resignation of justice minister Christiane Taubira on January 27th.

Wednesday’s vote on the entire revision followed separate votes on each amendment.

Small vote

The amendment defining the state of emergency passed on Monday night, when only 136 of 577 deputies were present.

Lawmakers have been severely criticised for what was perceived as laziness and indifference regarding an issue of crucial importance to France. Only 10 deputies from the main conservative party, Les Républicains (LR), bothered to attend the session.

The second, more controversial amendment on nationality stripping passed late Tuesday night by a margin of only 14 votes. The tally showed how divided political parties are, with 119 socialists voting for and 92 against.

Thirty-two LR deputies voted for the measure and 30 voted against it, disobeying a plea from the party's leader, former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The revision now goes to the Senate. Mr Sarkozy has staked his prestige on the bill’s passage, but his former prime minister François Fillon, who is influential in the Senate, opposes it vehemently.

Sarkozy and Fillon are rivals for their party’s 2017 presidential nomination.

Rewrite revision

Gérard Larcher, the LR president of the Senate, has promised to “re-write” the constitutional revision.

The conservative Senate and leftist Assembly are unlikely to agree on a single text. Until or unless they do, there will be no joint session of Congress at the Château de Versailles.

Even if the Congress convenes, Mr Hollande is far from certain of obtaining the 3/5 majority he needs for ratification.

The president must decide whether to abandon the constitutional revision now or forge ahead at the risk of greater humiliation later. Mr Hollande’s slim chances of re-election will be further endangered if he fails.

Mr Hollande was ready to abandon the revision in late December, when the degree of opposition became apparent, but prime minister Manuel Valls persuaded him to persevere.

Mr Valls has defended nationality stripping in debates in the National Assembly, saying the nation must demonstrate its will to fight an unprecedented terrorist threat. He told socialists they would weaken his government and the president if they voted No.

Critics say the amendment is futile because it will not deter terrorists; unnecessary because article 25 of the French civil code already prescribes the same punishment; and harmful because it sows division and convinces north African Arabs they are second-class citizens.

Stateless persons

Citing a clause in the 1961 UN Convention on stateless persons, which allows governments to render citizens stateless if they threaten the nation, Mr Valls last week said the amendment would apply to all French citizens, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. The text voted yesterday is more vague.

Mr Valls says he is certain the revision will be ratified.

The resignation of foreign minister Laurent Fabius on Wednesday and his appointment to the presidency of the Constitutional Council by Mr Hollande was the last step before a cabinet reshuffle expected on Thursday.

Mr Fabius is likely to be replaced by the current environment minister, Ségolène Royal, who was Mr Hollande’s partner for 27 years, and with whom he has four children, or former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Emmanuel Macron, the economy minister, has upstaged Mr Valls as the government's leading reformer.

On Tuesday night, Mr Macron implicitly criticised the prime minister, saying politicians had “given too much importance to the debate” on nationality stripping.

He added that “one doesn’t deal with evil by expelling it from the national community. Evil is everywhere.”

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times