French MPs have voted in favour of François Hollande’s controversial package of measures to change the French constitution in response to the Paris terrorist attacks in November.
A clear majority of MPs in the lower house of parliament approved the heavily contested measures that would strip convicted terrorists of their French nationality and enshrine the state of emergency powers in the constitution.
But the political rows over Hollande’s deeply divisive security crackdown appear likely to continue, with bitter internal battles on both the left and right. These divisions could make it difficult, perhaps impossible, to finally push through the constitutional change later this year.
France’s written constitution is seen as sacrosanct. Any amendment can only be achieved if it wins the backing of three-fifths of Congress – the body formed when both houses of parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate, meet at the Palace of Versailles to vote on revisions to the constitution.
The constitutional reform package is currently in its earliest stage. No date has been set for a possible Congress vote. Even though the lower house of parliament has approved the bill, the Senate is expected to seek to make its own changes when it examines it next month. This means the package will have to return to parliament until a bill can be agreed on.
The controversial sticking point is the proposal to amend the constitution to strip people convicted of terrorist offences of their French nationality. Hollande’s justice minister, Christiane Taubira,sensationally resigned in protest over this last month.
This measure was initially aimed at only stripping French nationality from citizens with dual nationality. But critics on the left said it would have the dangerous side-effect of signalling that French citizens could be divided into two categories – with those who were “pure” French worth more than those with mixed backgrounds.
Taubira repeatedly criticised the measure in public as pointless and of “absolutely pathetic inefficiency”, warning that it attacked an important pillar of French citizenship and identity.
Faced with an uprising within his own Socialist ranks, Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, finally gave in and tinkered with the bill to make it instead refer to all French people, not just dual citizens. But in doing so, he opened up a new front of opposition on the right, and now faces a rebellion from rightwing senators.
Hollande had restyled himself as a war chief cracking down on security issues and uniting the nation after the Paris attacks. But his plans for constitutional change have turned into an awkward muddle.
Even the French minister of the economy, Emmanuel Macron, has waded into the debate, saying the problem of terrorism cannot be dealt with by simply stripping a person’s nationality, and warning that “too much importance” had been given to this longrunning debate.
Valls said he was confident the constitutional reform would pass, and warned Socialist lawmakers that “to vote against [it] is to put the government in difficulty and leave the president in a minority”.
He warned that France still faces a terrorist threat “without doubt more serious than before 13 November”.
The constitutional package also intends to enshrine the state of emergency powers into the constitution, allowing a government to call on those powers in times of need.
Separately, the current state of emergency – which gives special powers to security services and police to act without judges’ approval or judicial oversight, carry out night raids, and place people under house arrest — has been extended for another three months. It had been due to expire on 26 February.
Rights groups say police are abusing their powers under the state of emergency. The government argues that it is an essential step to protect the nation at a time when France could face another jihadi attack.
The constitutional reform bill’s next step is when it is examined by the Senate in March.