As the French National Assembly began its gay marriage debate on Tuesday, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault appeared to have opened another can of worms by turning his attention to another of President François Hollande’s pre-election pledges – voting rights for all foreigners.
Meeting with Green party deputies at Matignon – his official residence in Paris – Ayrault announced he would start consultations with government and opposition groups on “the next project”, a constitutional reform to allow all non-French citizens to vote in local and European elections.
The announcement sparked fury among certain figures on the right. Christian Estrosi, a UMP deputy and former minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, told Europe 1 on Wednesday “I’m outraged at this, because it would mean giving the right to vote to people who hate France, detest secularism, and reject our laws.”
The president of the National Assembly’s group of UMP deputies (France’s largest and primary opposition party), Christian Jacob, denounced the prime minister’s proposal as a “distracting manoeuver,” in the French daily Le Parisien.
"Every day we have new announcements of job cuts and instead we are being distracted by the issue of voting rights for foreigners," Jacob told Europe1. "An opportunity not to talk about the real issues," he added.
Repeated failure to pass legislation
Under the rules of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, France must allow citizens of an EU member-state, who are resident in France, to vote in its local and European elections, but extending those rights to all other foreigners would require further constitutional reform.
The policy has been floated in France on several occasions over the last three decades, but has never had enough support for it to become law.
Speaking to The Local on Thursday, vice-president of the Ligue des Droits Humaines (Human Rights League), Vincent Rebérioux, launched a counter-attack against Estrosi.
“[Mr. Estrosi] is quite simply trying to provoke fear among the French public. He wants to create the impression that all foreigners are Muslims, and that Islam is the number one problem in France today, and none of that is true.”
On the campaign trail before his victory in May 2012, President Francois Hollande made voting rights for all foreigners one of his 60 election promises.
However, facing a weak economy and an unexpectedly divisive debate over its proposed legalization of gay marriage, the Socialist government might struggle to gather the popular support – and legislative votes – needed to achieve the electoral reform.
Asked about the prospects of Prime Minister Ayrault’s project, Rebérioux said “public pressure” was its only chance of success.
However, he lamented the repeated failure of France to pass this legislation, which was first put forward by former President François Mitterand in 1981.
"Over the last thirty years, we’ve had four separate attempts [to extend voting rights to all foreigners], and every time, people like [Mr. Estrosi] use this kind of racism to scare off the public," he said.