When French President Jacques Chirac called next Sunday's referendum on whether to shorten the presidential term from seven years to five, he clearly had a personal reason: He stands a better chance of reelection to a shorter term, given his advancing age.
But he also proclaimed a nobler purpose. "Our democracy is running out of steam, a bit," Mr. Chirac worried last week. "We need to find a way to regenerate it ... thus the referendum, a way of consulting the French people serenely."
In that, he appears to have failed. Opinion polls suggest that a record 64 percent of voters are so profoundly unmoved by the presidential term issue that they will not bother to go to the polls on Sunday.
The move is seen as the first step in a series of modernizing institutional reforms that would bring France more into line with other European countries. It is "a democratic step forward," in the words of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, which will lead to "a new effort at democratic renewal of our institutions."
Of those citizens who do turn out, 75 percent are expected to vote "yes" - a margin so wide that the referendum is devoid of drama - which is also expected to depress turnout.
In their massive indifference, French voters are only taking a page from their leaders' book. Neither Chirac, a recent convert to the idea of the quinquennat, the five year term, nor Mr. Jospin, who has long argued for it, has addressed the nation, and none of the political parties has launched a real campaign.
They are aware that shortening the presidential term is not among current priorities for most French people who are up in arms - like most of their European neighbors - about skyrocketing gasoline prices and demanding tax cuts. "I couldn't care less about the term lengths," a 30-something woman told the French daily Le Soir. "Have a referendum on gas prices. Then I'd come!"
Proponents of the change argue that seven years is too long for one person to hold power in today's swiftly changing world. "Things move faster and faster, and the idea of a president elected for seven years seemed a bit old-fashioned" Chirac told a group of students recently.
But the conservative president has not endorsed the sort of reforms that his Socialist premier has proposed, aimed at strengthening parliament's role, decentralizing authority to the regions, and protecting the judiciary's independence.
A shorter presidential term coinciding with the parliamentary term, say supporters of the constitutional amendment, will lower the chances of 'cohabitation,' under which a president from one political party must rule in conjunction with a government from another party, as is now the case.
Though the paltry public debate of the issues has thrown up few questions about the impact of the referendum's result, analysts say it will likely have repercussions for the way France is governed that few voters have yet considered.
"No one can seriously believe," says constitutional scholar Dominique Rousseau, "that it is possible to touch one clause of the Constitution without others, and thus, moving the whole system."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society