France passed legislation on Tuesday giving doctors new powers to place terminally-ill patients in a “deep sleep” until they die, sparking controversy over whether euthanasia should be fully legalised.

Eight out of 10 French people are in favour of allowing euthanasia and almost all – 96 per cent – back the “deep sleep” law, polls show. It will apply to patients who are conscious but in “unbearable” pain, whose treatment is not working or who decide to stop taking medication.

France legalised “passive euthanasia” in 2005, where treatment, needed to maintain life is withheld or withdrawn, but the government has refused to go further and allow full euthanasia, or assisted suicide, despite the huge public support.

The new measures, passed by a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, will allow doctors to combine passive euthanasia with “deep and continuous sedation”.

Conservative Catholics and other critics say it is an unwelcome step towards euthanasia, which remains illegal in France.

“Sleep before death to avoid suffering,” said Jean Leonetti, the opposition centre-Right MP, summing up the new legislation which he proposed jointly with an MP from the governing Socialist Party.

The new law will also compel doctors to follow end-of-life instructions written in advance, if patients are no longer able to express their will or decide if they want to be kept alive.

The measure was a campaign promise by President François Hollande, who gave a commitment to allow the terminally-ill afflicted by “unbearable” pain “to benefit from medical assistance to end their lives with dignity”.

Anti-euthanasia groups criticised the legislation as “masked euthanasia”, but pro-euthanasia campaigners argue that it does not go far enough and would lead to terminally ill patients “dying of hunger or thirst”.

The vote came five months after the poignant suicides of two couples in their 80s rekindled the national debate about euthanasia.

One couple chose the romantic setting of a luxury hotel, Le Lutetia, to carry out their pact to die together. They first ordered room service and later suffocated themselves with plastic bags over their heads. Staff found them lying hand-in-hand, with a typewritten note claiming “the right to die with dignity”.

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