THE FUTURE of France's private schools, the vast majority of which are Catholic, remained in doubt early this week as the French Senate continued to debate President Mitterrand's request for a referendum on liberty.
The President had previously given his approval to the call for a poll on the issue of the future organisation of France's private schools, which make up 15 per cent of the education sector.
However, the constitution of the French Fifth Republic only allows For referenda on issues of government. To pave the way for a referendum on the schools' question the President suggested a first referendum to change the constitution itself in September.
The so-called referendum on liberty proposal was then put to the National Assembly, where the Socialist majority in the Chamber of Deputies saw it through comfortably.
The Senate which is dominated by the Gaullist opposition had previously indicated its intention to reject the President's appeal, despite the fact that opinion polls show 70 per cent of the electorate in favour of the liberty poll. The opposition in the Senate clearly feels that the first referendum is more than a mere constitutional device, and see it rather as an attempt to widen the powers of the President at the expense of the Parliament.
They dismissed a last minute offer by the new Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, in which he promised a national referendum on the schools question only if the opposition allowed the first referendum, as a "smokescreen".
It remains unclear exactly what was behind M Fabius's announcement, and it has been speculated that if the prolonged debate goes against the President he may abandon his original promise to k hold a schools' referendum.
M Mitterrand's recent decision to replace Pierre Mauroy as Prime Minister has been proving very popular in France, and latest opinion polls show widespread approval at the new tone of moderation in government policies, and at the withdrawal of the Coummunists from government.