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Challenge in Upcoming Vote Is to Convince the French to Care

A referendum would trim 2 years from the presidential term, but 75% of poll respondents say there are more important issues facing their country.


PARIS — Whenever the French president gets together with foreign leaders, only kings and queens may be able to boast of greater job security. The head of state here is elected for seven years--nearly twice as long as a U.S. presidential term.

That was fine for the kingly Charles de Gaulle, creator and constitutional ghostwriter of the contemporary French republic that was born in 1958. But leaders of most political parties on both the right and left, as well as the current president, Jacques Chirac, have come to believe that seven years is too long.

So citizens are being summoned to the polls Sept. 24 to vote on a constitutional change that would lop two years off the presidential term. Chirac, once a staunch foe of a shorter mandate, has told his people that it is "more modern" for them to have a more frequent say on who heads the country.

The trouble is, most of the French don't seem to care, or are wary of the motives of Chirac and other politicians. And that may turn the referendum into a fiasco.

Recent opinion polls show that apathy is the rule among the normally politicized, polarized French. One survey forecast only a 36% turnout. If so, the referendum could elicit no greater popular interest than a 1988 one on a new status for the South Pacific island territory of New Caledonia. A record low 37% of the French electorate cast ballots then.

By staying away from the vote, some French men and women want to send a message that their leaders, left and right, are out of touch with their real concerns. A poll published Monday found that 75% of respondents felt there were more important issues facing the country than how long the president serves. For instance, half of those polled said they would boycott the vote to protest the high level of taxes.

And many of the French wonder if the president, who will be 69 when his term expires in 2002, changed his mind about the length of his term because he believes that more voters can be tempted to entrust him with five more years than with seven.

"It's possible this is a calculation on his part meant to make the handicap of his age less important," said Francois Platone, a researcher at the Study Center on French Political Life, a Paris think tank.

It's a fact that if Chirac hadn't blundered three years ago and called early parliamentary elections that led to the rout of his center-right allies by the Socialists and other left-wing parties, the question of the presidential term would almost certainly not be on the table.

The French president is more powerful than his U.S. counterpart--but only when legislators loyal to him control Parliament and the prime minister is loyal to him. In the contrary case, the head of state is forced to "cohabit" with a prime minister from the enemy camp.

For fully half of the past 14 years, France's left and right have shared power in this manner. Since June 1997, Chirac has had to contend with a Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin.

The proposed reform is supposed to minimize the chances of such cohabitation by making the length of the presidential term coincide with that of the National Assembly starting in 2002. But there's no guarantee that the electorate will vote a straight party ticket. What's more, because France's head of state has the constitutional prerogative of dissolving Parliament and calling early elections, as Chirac did in 1997, the electoral cycles could again be out of whack.

For the moment, limiting the number of presidential terms that one person can have is not on the cards. Francois Mitterrand was president for 14 years, a full two terms, a period most of the French now agree was too long.

Jospin, a longtime advocate of the shorter term, has promised more institutional reforms later, while asking for voter support now.

Along with the Communists, who are calling on voters to abstain Sept. 24, mainstream opposition to the term reduction proposal is being led by a dissident Gaullist, former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua. Shorten the term, Pasqua has warned, and the president progressively will be reduced to the same ceremonial functions as "Miss France."

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