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French Parliament approves rules for impeachment

Chirac arranges session weeks before term ends

Jacques Chirac has been in office since 1995. Jacques Chirac has been in office since 1995.

PARIS -- Parliament yesterday approved a constitutional amendment that introduces a US-style impeachment procedure to check the powers of France's presidency.

President Jacques Chirac convened both houses of Parliament for an extraordinary joint session in the castle of Versailles, nine weeks before his term runs out. He pledged to give Parliament impeachment powers when he ran for re election in 2002 and was under pressure for refusing to testify before judges investigating a party financing scandal while he was mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995.

Many analysts saw the session yesterday as Chirac's last major political act before handing over power to his successor in May. Chirac, 74, in office since 1995, has not officially said whether he will run for a third term. But officials mentioned in French news reports suggest that he may announce his retirement from politics as early as this week.

In addition to Chirac's poor popularity ratings, there have been hints suggesting he will not seek re election. He said in a television interview this month that there was "a life after politics," while his wife, Bernadette, said she would miss the Élysée Palace.

On Saturday a book was published based on interviews with Chirac in which he spoke with uncharacteristic candor about his personal life, describing the pain of watching his older daughter fight anorexia and making allusions to past affairs . The author, journalist Pierre Péan, wrote a similar retrospective about François Mitterrand a few months before he left office as president.

Not all lawmakers were happy to be summoned to change the Constitution four days before Parliament adjourns for the election campaign.

Louis Giscard d'Estaing, a member of Chirac's center-right party and the son of former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, voted three times no, "on principle," he said. "You don't change the Constitution of the Fifth Republic just before the presidency runs out," he said.

Others took issue with the changes . Pierre Lellouche, another Gaullist, called the new impeachment rules a "sort of legal putsch," while some members of the Socialist Party criticized them for not going far enough.

Since the Constitution was introduced under Charles de Gaulle, France's president has had more powers than any other European head of state. Only high treason was an acceptable criterion to remove a president from office, a decision that was the preserve of 24 high court judges.

According to the new rules, the president retains immunity and can continue to refuse to testify while in office. But in case of a "neglect of his duties manifestly incompatible with the exercise of his mandate," a two-thirds majority of either house of Parliament can authorize impeachment proceedings.

The changes come too late to affect Chirac . But as his term draws to an end, speculation has mounted over whether he might find himself summoned to testify.

Last Friday, a Paris appeals court approved a request to begin investigating the role of Chirac's chiefs of staff at Paris City Hall from 1983 to 1995 in a party financing scandal that involved fictional employees and illicit kickbacks.

Chirac's deputy at the time, Alain Juppé, was convicted for his involvement three years ago.

Lawmakers also approved two other constitutional changes yesterday that Chirac had promised -- one amending election rules in the French Pacific island territory of New Caledonia and another one writing a 26-year old ban of the death penalty into the Constitution. Any constitutional amendmen ts require a three-fifth s majority.