French Politicians Seek Debate Vote on Turkey

PARIS (Reuters)–French politicians opposed to Turkey joining the European Union called on Thursday for a debate and vote in parliament before a December summit at which the EU will decide whether to start accession talks.

The demand highlighted splits in France that could undermine Turkey’s entry bid and increased pressure on President Jacques Chirac over the issue–one day after the European Commission recommended Ankara be allowed to open entry talks.

Ignoring an appeal for calm by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin–about 50 deputies from Chirac’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party and the center-right Union for the French Democracy (UDF) wrote to the president seeking a meeting with him on Turkey.

They also demanded a debate before the EU’s December summit. Prominent politicians seeking a vote in the 577-seat parliament–as well as a debate–include Laurent Fabius–a Socialist former prime minister and possible presidential candidate in 2007.

"No negotiations have ever started without them ending up in a ‘yes’," Fabius told reporters–reflecting the concerns of some French politicians that Turkey’s entry is an accomplished and presumably irreversible fact and that they will not be properly consulted.

UDF head Francois Bayrou said such an historic decision had to pass through parliament as well as be put to a referendum "as an elementary rule of democracy."

Jean-Marie Le Pen–leader of the hard-right National Front–voiced his concerns too. "Once negotiations start–there’ll be no turning back whatever happens," he said.

Parliamentary speaker Jean-Louis Debre–a Chirac ally–has said a parliamentary debate on Turkey’s membership can be organized but not a vote. Even a debate could embarrass Chirac because it would underline the divisions over Turkey.

REASSURANCE BY RAFFARIN

Raffarin seemed determined to head off controversy by saying there was nothing immediate or definitive.

"Let’s talk straight. Turkey’s not going to be in a position to join the European Union in the coming years but we can’t shut the door for eternity," Raffarin told Metro–a publication that is distributed free of charge in Paris and other big cities.

"Let’s not allow partisan politics to draw the curtains on a matter that needs time," he said–highlighting that Turkey would need big progress on reform before joining the EU and that there was a clause allowing suspension of talks after they opened.

The Commission says Turkey has made substantial progress in political reforms but must improve implementation–notably in the fight against torture–and expand freedom of expression and religion–and rights for women–trade unions–and minorities.

Chirac announced last Friday that France would hold a referendum on entry if the EU agrees to accession–despite the risk that France could block its membership.

He made the move under pressure from his ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

Although a referendum is unlikely for more than a decade–a recent opinion poll showed 56 percent of French people oppose Turkey’s immediate entry because of fears over jobs and concerns about letting in a mainly Muslim country that straddles the divide between Europe and Asia.

France–a predominantly Catholic country which is also home to Europe’s biggest Jewish and Muslim communities–did not hold a referendum before the EU expanded to 25 members in May.

French people are concerned that France’s influence in the EU has been diluted by enlargement and that the entry of a country of 71 million people will water it down more.

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