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POLITICS

France mulls rule to keep over-70s out of politics

In a bid to breathe new life into French politics, the government is considering setting an upper age cap of 70 on the country’s politicians and limiting time in office to three terms.

France mulls rule to keep over-70s out of politics
Many French senators are over 70. Could they be forced to step down? Photo: AFP

France is well known for the tendency of its politicians to stick around – despite age, defeat or even a conviction for corruption.

But that culture could change soon enough with a desire in the French government to get more young people into politics.

France’s Minister for Youth Patrick Kanner is said to be seriously considering introducing a series of changes that would essentially prevent politicians from hanging around too long and encourage the country's young people to get in to take their place.

Kanner is keen on a proposition to put an age limit on parliamentarians which would bar them from standing for election after the age of 70.

Another recommendation is to limit elected MPs and senators to three mandates maximum.

If the rules were in place today they would impact a fair number of MPs and senators.

In France’s lower house the National Assembly, there are 53 MPs aged over 70, out of a total of 575, and in the upper house 83 out of 344 senators are aged at least 71.

The average age of MPs is 59 and 10 months, whereas it’s 61 for senators.

The staying power of France’s politicians is notorious. Nicolas Sarkozy, aged 60, could make a comeback to the Elysée Palace in 2017, despite his crushing defeat in 2012 and his image being tainted by a string of political scandals.

Alain Juppé, who is also in the running for the Elysée, could be directly affected if the new rules are brought in, given that he is 69 years old.

Juppé wasn't even popular as prime minister between 1995 and 1997 and he was convicted for misuse of public funds back in 2004. Yet he may still become president.

“In Britain, party leaders resigned and quit politics after their defeat, even though they're only in their 40s,” Gael Sliman of pollster Odoxa told Reuters news agency, referring to the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders who stepped down after being beaten by incumbent David Cameron in May's election.

“In France the system provides for little renewal and promotes the old or very old … and failure. That is not inspiring (for voters),” he said. 

History could also have been very different if the French had had age limits in place.

Ex-president François Mitterrand would not have been able to present himself for re-election in 1988 and General de Gaulle couldn't have made his comeback in 1965.

Naturally some of France’s elderly MPs have protested against any change.

“Being an MP is not a career that starts at 20 and finishes at 65,” said 74-year-old Socialist MP René Dosière. “It’s a role that we can pick up at any time. Therefore you cannot use the same reasoning for a job and for elective office.”

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
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