Parliament adopts presidential immunity bill

17th January 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 16, 2007 (AFP) - France's lower house adopted a bill on Tuesday making a president immune from prosecution while in office but leaving the head of state exposed to charges once his or her mandate ends.On another part of the bill creating a US-style impeachment procedure allowing parliament to unseat the head-of-state, lawmakers passed an amendment making this possible only with a two-thirds majority.The bill is now due to go before the upper house Senate at a date yet to be fixed.Promised by Pre

PARIS, Jan 16, 2007 (AFP) - France's lower house adopted a bill on Tuesday making a president immune from prosecution while in office but leaving the head of state exposed to charges once his or her mandate ends.

On another part of the bill creating a US-style impeachment procedure allowing parliament to unseat the head-of-state, lawmakers passed an amendment making this possible only with a two-thirds majority.

The bill is now due to go before the upper house Senate at a date yet to be fixed.

Promised by President Jacques Chirac in the run-up to the 2002 election, the constitutional reform will not protect him, once he has left office, from questioning over party funding scandals dating back to his time as Paris mayor.

Although he has not ruled out standing in April's presidential election, a third election bid by the 74-year-old president is seen as highly unlikely.

Intended to "clarify" the status of the head of state, the reform would set in stone two landmark court rulings reached early in Chirac's mandate, which established that a serving president cannot be prosecuted, charged or forced to testify in a common law case.

The two rulings, by the Constitutional Court in 1999 and France's highest appeals court, the Cour de Cassation, in 2001, sparked controversy by enabling Chirac to avoid questioning in a corruption probe.

But they also specified that the president's time in office should not be taken into account under the statute of limitations, meaning Chirac could be questioned once he stands down.

In particular he could be investigated over illegal salaries paid to members of his RPR party out of Paris municipal coffers between 1988 and 1995 -- over which his ally and former prime minister Alain Juppe was convicted in 2004.

Both the ruling centre-right Union for a Popular Movement and the opposition Socialists have backed the reform, with the Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal describing it as "a first step towards modernising our institutions."

"We will vote this reform, because it is right that the head of state be both protected within the dignity of his functions, and held accountable before the law, like any citizen," she said.

But the centrist Union for French Democracy voted against, saying the two big parties had stitched up the debate to make it "virtually impossible to carry out an impeachment", because of the two-thirds majority needed in both houses of parliament.

Meanwhile elder statesman and former Socialist justice minister Robert Badinter said the impeachment plans were "dangerous for the institutional balance" of power, because the indirectly elected French Senate overrepresents rural, right-wing areas.

"A right-wing president would never be impeached, while a left-wing one could be," he argued on RTL radio.

Le Monde newspaper meanwhile warned that "by perpetuating the immunity, not to say impunity, of the head of state, it may cause legitimate offence to the French people".

While it gave Chirac credit for pushing the reform through -- be it at the very end of his mandate -- Le Monde also faulted him for making it necessary in the first place.

"Nothing can change the fact that (Chirac) was the first president of the Fifth Republic to have been directly implicated by the judiciary. And responsible, as such, for undermining his function," it wrote in an editorial.

The reform needs to ratified by a congress of both houses of parliament in Versailles in February.

The congress will also decide whether to write the abolition of the death penalty into the French constitution.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French News

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