Until Charles de Gaulle came to power in 1959 and imposed the constitution of the Fifth Republic to suit himself, the French used to ridicule the powers of their president. His duties, according to some, centered mainly on opening chrysanthemum shows.
Georges Clemenceau, the powerful premier in the early 20th Century, said, "There are two things in the world for which I have never seen any use: the prostate gland and the president of the republic."
It is hard to imagine President Francois Mitterrand, the fourth president under the De Gaulle constitution, ever dropping to that level of impotence. The president of France is regarded now as one of the most powerful executives of any democratic system anywhere, even more powerful, from a constitutional point of view, than the President of the United States.
Mitterrand has the sole authority to order the firing of France's nuclear weapons. On a less awesome matter, he chose the businessmen who will run France's first private television channel. Mitterrand's hand is everywhere.
Yet in the view of some political figures, among them former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, all this power will dissipate and France will go back to the old days of a chrysanthemum-show president if, as expected, Mitterrand's Socialist Party and the rest of the left fail to keep control of the National Assembly in the March 16 parliamentary elections. According to this view, the premier, not the president, will then run France.
Mitterrand treats such analyses with disdain. "They are trying to bring me back to my law school days," he said recently. "Every day I get a course in constitutional law."
But he is clearly concerned enough now to shed any pose of being a president far above the electoral battle. More obviously than any other president before him, Mitterrand has involved himself in this campaign, pleading for Socialist votes. Although he is not a candidate and has two more years of office, the elections may be critical for him.
For France, the elections presage great confusion. Are the voters simply choosing their representatives in parliament? Or are they changing their system of government? Do they want Mitterrand, whom they elected in 1981, to keep all his powers until his term ends in 1988? Or do they want to cut him down? The answers are not clear now, and they may be no clearer after the returns are in.
The confusion arises because the constitution of the Fifth Republic divides powers between an elected president and a parliamentary premier. Since 1958, the president's party has controlled parliament, and the premier has been regarded as subservient to the president, dependent on his favor to stay in office. In 1964, De Gaulle told a news conference that "the indivisible authority of the state is conferred entirely on the president by the people who have elected him."
If the Socialists lose control of parliament in March, however, a French president may be forced, for the first time under the Fifth Republic, to select a premier from a hostile party. This used to happen in the decades of the Third and Fourth republics, but it did not matter much since the president's role then was to act as a kind of ceremonial chief of state. The premier had real power.
The current constitution, however, provides specific powers for the president. The president has the authority to appoint the premier and his Cabinet, to call national referendums, dissolve parliament, command the armed forces, negotiate treaties, delay legislation, appoint top officials, preside over Cabinet meetings and assume full control of the country in case of an emergency. The question is whether all these powers become hollow whenever the president is faced by a hostile premier and Parliament.
The voters of France hear contradictory answers from their politicians. Former President Giscard, who leads one of the two main conservative opposition parties, told a recent news conference that, once a premier is named, "he will be anchored and immovable." "The president has no practical way," Giscard said, "to oppose the implementation of a new policy wanted by the government and parliamentary majority."
Supporters of former Premier Jacques Chirac, whose conservative Gaullist party is expected to win the most seats, have said much the same thing. But Chirac has been more temperate in his own remarks, claiming that a conservative premier could "cohabit" with a Socialist president. If the president put obstacles in the way of the new government, Chirac went on, the president would risk bringing on a crisis.
Former Premier Raymond Barre, ranked by polls as the most popular conservative politician in France, disagrees. Barre does not see all power going to the premier. "It would be dangerous for the future of our institutions," he has said, "if the president ceased to be the keystone of the system."
At the same time, Barre insists that it would be impossible for a Socialist president and a conservative premier to work together under the constitution. For these reasons, Barre says, Mitterrand should resign if his party is defeated in March.
Premier Laurent Fabius, in a recent television interview, seemed to agree somewhat with Barre's analysis, though not, of course, with Barre's solution. If the Socialist Party of Mitterrand and Fabius lost control of the National Assembly, Fabius said, "it would be a mess . . . . Institutionally, it would be extraordinarily difficult." To avoid the mess, Fabius urged the French to vote Socialist.
Mitterrand himself has been enigmatic about the future. Much depends, of course, on whom he selects as premier in March. He has limits. He must try to satisfy the National Assembly since it has the power to reject his choice with a vote of censure. But Mitterrand still has some leeway. Asked by a reporter recently if he would follow traditional parliamentary practice and select the leader of the party with the most seats in the National Assembly, Mitterrand replied: "I will follow the constitution and pick who I want. Of course, it might be the same person."
Mitterrand seems to enjoy compounding the puzzle. In a recent speech at Rouen, denouncing conservatives as champions of the rich against the poor, the president offered this vague appraisal: "The election results in March could change my role. But no matter what the results, my function, my duties, and my rights will remain the same."
The United States, with all the constitutional divisions of power, works out its governmental conflicts peaceably and relatively smoothly. A Socialist president and a conservative premier might try hard to avoid confrontation and crisis. But France has not had much experience at that. Sen. Charles Pasqua, a Chirac supporter, told a group of American journalists at breakfast last week, "In March, we will find ourselves in a situation that we have never known before."
An analyst can conjure up all kinds of examples of possible confrontation in the future. If both the Socialist president and the conservative premier showed up at the annual summit of industrialized nations, the other leaders might have a hard time figuring out who spoke for France.