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Friday, 25 July 2008

By Lizzy Davies

Nicolas Sarkozy narrowly avoided a critical political defeat Monday night when his flagship proposals to give the French constitution its biggest overhaul in half a century were passed by a margin of just one vote.

The president, who has made the reform of key institutions a priority of his premiership, scraped to victory as 539 politicians came out in support of the changes, while 357 voted against. He had needed a majority of three-fifths — or 538 votes — for the reform to go through.
 
As the result of the highly controversial ballot was read out, a collective murmur of surprise echoed around the chamber at Versailles, scene of the special session of France's MPs and senators.
 
It had been unclear right up until the last moments which way the vote would go. For days the Elysee Palace has been rallying recalcitrant Gaullist members of Sarkozy's majority UMP party and urging those undecided to back the reforms.
 
Although Monday night's dramatic win meant Sarkozy has avoided the embarrassment of defeat on a package that he has so strongly endorsed, the tightness of the margin paid testament to the fierce unpopularity of the reforms.
 
While he claimed the changes — which included limiting a president to two five-year terms and giving MPs the right to veto presidential appointments — would give more power to the parliament, opponents insisted the reforms did not go far enough. They said the reforms were just another example of the kind of power-hungry tactics Sarkozy is accused of employing in pursuit of a "monocracy".
 
The president's request to be able to speak in front of parliament — something which has been forbidden ever since General Charles de Gaulle drew up the constitution — drew particular ire.
 
Sarkozy was on his way back from Dublin at the time of the vote and so could not witness the knife-edge proceedings. But UMP members made their relief clear as they rose to their feet and applauded the result.
 
The Elysee's unlikely saviour turned out to be Jack Lang, the former Socialist minister, who was the only member of his party to vote for the changes.

—The Guardian, London

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