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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

French Legislators Meet To Amend Constitution

VERSAILLES, France -- A rare joint session of both houses of parliament opened in the palace of France's "Sun King" on Monday to amend the constitution, widening the use of referendums, in a move critics warned could increase presidential rule.

The congress of the 887 members of the Senate and National Assembly was also due to adopt two other amendments extending the session time of parliament to a single nine-month period and making it easier to prosecute parliamentarians for ordinary criminal offenses.

New President Jacques Chirac promised the reforms in a drive to give French voters a greater direct say in democracy.

Under the proposed text, already adopted separately by each house, the president will be empowered to call a referendum on "reforms relating to the economic or social policy of the nation and of public services."

The conservative Gaullist Chirac promised during his election campaign to hold a referendum on reforming France's highly centralized education system, which would not have been possible under the current constitution.

The Socialist and Communist opposition parties vehemently oppose the amendment, saying it will further weaken parliament and the courts by enabling the president to bypass the legislature and the judiciary by putting controversial proposals directly to a vote.

They also argue that issues as complex as education reform or overhauling France's welfare system are too complex to be reduced to a simple "yes/no" choice.

Even within Chirac's own overwhelming parliamentary majority, some lawmakers voiced misgivings about the sweeping power it would give the president.

The Senate forced a modification so that any issue put to a referendum would first have to be debated by both chambers of parliament. But there would be no parliamentary vote.

Constitutional experts say the change keeps power firmly in the hands of the executive.

The government spurned calls from the extreme right and ecologists for the public to be allowed to force a Swiss-style referendum by mounting a petition with a required number of signatures.

The terms of the constitutional amendment also excludes using a plebiscite to call into question civil liberties or restore the death penalty, abolished in 1981.

But Chirac could try to use referendums to overcome the innate resistance to change in French society on such issue as the breakup of the state telecommunications monopoly or the funding of retirement pensions and health care.

However, Chirac will be well aware that a referendum is a two-edged sword. His political mentor, General Charles de Gaulle was force to resign as president in 1969 after losing a referendum on reforming regional government.