VERSAILLES, France (AFP) — French President Nicolas Sarkozy's flagship constitutional reform was passed Monday at a special congress of deputies and senators -- by votes from a maverick Socialist and the parliament's speaker.
With Sarkozy in Ireland seeking to resurrect the Lisbon Treaty as holder of the European Union presidency, seven members of Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party voted against the constitutional rewrite and one abstained.
While Sarkozy hailed the result as making France more "democratic," opponents gathered at the Chateau de Versailles -- the former seat of French kings -- voiced fears of a "monocracy" in waiting.
After a sigh of relief from UMP members, some of whom complained of bullying whip tactics over the weekend, Sarkozy broke off from a press conference on his Dublin visit to vow an acceleration in the pace of his reform plans.
"It's not one camp winning against another... it is French democracy that has won," the president said, adding that the forces of "movement, change and modernity" had beaten "immobility, rigidity and sectarianism."
"I am absolutely delighted and feel encouraged to press on with the essential reforms put in motion with (Prime Minister) Francois Fillon's government," Sarkozy said.
"I want to thank the radicals from the left and personalities of the left who gave their support to this reform. Many people have waited a long time for this," he added.
Of 906 eligible lawmakers, 905 voted with 896 counted after abstentions and spoilt papers. 539 voted for the project, 357 against. Under constitutional rules, Sarkozy needed three-fifths, or 538, to reach the winning post.
He did so thanks to Socialist Jack Lang, a former minister who sat on the committee that laid the groundwork for the bill, and parliament speaker Bernard Accoyer, who broke with convention by casting his vote.
The Socialists had warned before the reforms were put to the vote that they were the equivalent of crowning Sarkozy king. "While we were hoping for progress for democracy, you are offering us consolidation of 'monocracy'," senator Bernard Frimat told the congress.
Lang was "now alone with his conscience," Socialist spokesman Julien Dray said, adding that the wafer-thin majority meant the reform was "tainted."
The bill sets a two-term limit for presidents, gives parliament a veto over some presidential appointments, ends government control over parliament's committee system and allows parliament to set its own agenda.
But the clause that dominated public debate is one letting the president address parliament once a year in a US-style state of the union speech, which the French head of state has been barred from doing since 1875 to ensure the executive and legislative are kept separate.
Sarkozy has argued that his reform of the constitution brought in by president Charles de Gaulle in 1958 would make the head of state more accountable to lawmakers and to the public.
The fruits of a key promise in the election campaign that brought him to power a year ago, the bill also does away with the president's power to issue collective pardons.
"After a year of reforms, this reform of the constitution shows that we are making profound changes to France under the president of the republic, and the momentum behind that reform will only grow with this success," said Fillon.
Citing the influence of a "courageous" Lang, Fillon said the socialist had adopted a stance that was "coherent with left-wing thinking on the issues at stake for a very long time. I tip my hat to him," he added.
The leader of the Socialists, Francois Hollande, told national television that Sarkozy was the "loser."
Lang "was the only one in his political family to vote for the reform," said Hollande, who is to stand down as leader of his movement later this year. "He will be held responsible."
Sarkozy was due back in Paris in time to celebrate later Monday.
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