The French parliament is set for a heated debate on the controversial issue of Turkey's EU accession, an issue that divides French politicians and public alike.
Chirac backs a referendum
French President Jacques Chirac has been treading carefully on the sensitive issue of Turkish accession to the European Union.
In December, European heads of state will meet in Brussels to decide whether accession talks should begin; the current German government is widely expected to vote for talks to start.
But opinions are anything but united on the issue; in France as well as Germany, there has been talks of petition drives opposing the negotiations, and France even considered changing its constitution to allow a popular referendum on the issue.
In recent days Chirac has noted that Turkey has been given the prospect of possible EU accession for years – and that prior commitments must be adhered to.
But he’s also mentioned that France could put an end to membership negotiations any time by exercising a veto. These remarks have triggered a heated debate across the country, reflected in Thursday's parliamentary debate in Paris.
Chirac tries new tactic
The debate is hottest within Jacques Chirac’s own party. Chirac tried to pass of the responsibility for a decision by suggesting a change in the constitution to allow a public referendum on the issue.
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan gave a speech on EU accession
But the members of the national assembly are demanding a parliamentary decision before the EU summit in December, when European leaders are to decide whether or not to begin membership negotiations.
Chirac has tried to defuse the situation.
"Of course parliament will be heard and consulted on this matter at all times of the decision making process," he told reporters. "But of course in a way that is in accordance with our constitution."
According to the French constitution, the President determines the country’s foreign policy. The only way the parliament could force its will on the government in foreign policy matters would be a vote of no confidence toppling the whole government.
The conservative dominated parliament may not want to go that far, but in order to prevent any embarrassment, Chirac is attempting to avoid a vote on the matter altogether. A debate yes, but not a vote.
Dominique Paillet, from Chirac's center-right UMP party, is one of those who are upset at the prospect of a debate without any real consequences. He has been collecting signatures against Turkey’s EU membership and claims that one hundred parliamentarians in the ruling party’s camp have signed.
"The government does not want to hear the opinions of the representatives of the people for fear of criticism," Paillet told reporters. "There is no question that a majority of the parliamentarians are opposed to Turkish EU membership. Debating is good, but real democracy would include a vote."
Laurent Fabius from the opposition socialists agreed. Pointing to the Turkish parliament’s vote on the matter, he said: "It would be paradoxical if the French parliament would have less of a say than the Turkish one."
While the French opposition also stands divided on the matter of Turkey’s EU membership, analysts say they are keeping a lid on discussions and are rather sitting back to rub their hands in glee as the conservative camp damages itself on the matter.
Meanwhile the French public is growing increasingly hostile to the idea of Turkish EU membership. A majority say they are against it on principle, believing that Turkey is not culturally or geographically a part of Europe.
Passions are running high in France, with the issue of Turkish membership dominating the front pages almost every day. German politics recently saw an uproar when Angela Merkel, head of the opposition Christian Democrat party, announced she would start a petition drive to collect signatures opposing Turkish entry in the European Union. The move was denounced by some as low-level populism, and split opinion even within her own party.