This is the first time ever that opposition lawmakers have come together to try force a referendum on an issue, using a measure introduced by former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 to boost participatory democracy.
Socialist Party spokesman Boris Vallaud told France 2 broadcaster on Wednesday that MPs were determined to block a “major strategic error, because Aeroports de Paris is not just a regular company”.
Referendums are rare in France, with the last one dating to 2005 when voters rejected a new European constitution.
Some of the “yellow vests” protesters behind five months of weekly rallies over social inequality and what they see as France’s failure to give ordinary citizens a say in law-making hailed the move.
“It’s thanks to us. Great! At least maybe we have a sort of lobby power,” Jerome Rodrigues, one of the movement’s leaders, told France Info radio.
Praising the lawmakers, he said: “For once they did what they are paid for, to listen to, and carry the voice of the people in French institutions.”
A referendum can be triggered on proposed legislation with the support of a fifth of members of both houses of parliament – 185 out of 925 – and if one-tenth of the electorate – 4.5 million voters – sign an online petition in favour.
The process is long, however, and contains several constitutional and parliamentary hurdles that have acted as a deterrent to lawmakers in the past.
RIP TO PRIVATISATIONS?
President Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker, wants to invest the proceeds of the sale in an innovation fund – a key campaign promise – and reduce the public debt, which stood at 99 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the second quarter.
Other companies set for privatisation include lottery and scratch-cards monopoly Francaise des Jeux.
Opposition lawmakers have been up in arms, accusing the government of selling off state jewels.
The privatisation of the airports was expected to be adopted by parliament, thanks to the large majority of Macron’s Republic on the Move party. But a referendum, the outcome of which would be binding, could throw a spanner in the works.
A total of 218 lawmakers from 11 parliamentary groups ranging from members of the Communist Party to the centre-right Republicans signed the referendum bill on Tuesday, well above the 185 required.
The far-right National Rally voiced support for the move, without adding its signature.