Premier Jacques Chirac defied a constitutional threat from President Francois Mitterrand and presented his new, conservative program to the French National Assembly on Wednesday, calling on deputies to break with French tradition by downgrading state controls in favor of a free market.
But the narrowness of his majority in the assembly and the threat of future presidential vetoes made it clear that Chirac will have difficulty delivering the “vigorous action of renewal” that he promised for France.
“France lives today in a great moment of hope,” he said in his first parliamentary speech since his appointment as premier three weeks ago. “The French await, they hope for change. Our duty is to respond to that hope.”
Series of Decrees
But his first proposed action, a series of decrees selling a large number of France’s nationalized companies, ran into a constitutional snag. Mitterrand told a morning meeting of the Chirac Cabinet that he will refuse to sign any decree selling a company nationalized before he came to power in 1981. Also, he insisted that he will examine closely the decrees on other issues before signing them.
Despite this, Chirac made no changes in his plans when he presented his program to the National Assembly later in the day. And, in a television interview during the evening, he dismissed Mitterrand’s threats, implying that they would not matter.
The contradictory statements from Mitterrand and Chirac appeared to set the stage for the first serious constitutional confrontation between the Socialist president and the conservative premier since the March 16 parliamentary elections. Those elections turned the French political system upside down by dividing executive power between politicians of opposing ideologies for the first time under the Fifth French Republic.
The sharpness of the controversy over the nationalized industries was somewhat surprising since both Mitterrand and Chirac have tried to show in the last few weeks that they are trying hard to make the twin-executive system work.
Polls indicate that many French are satisfied with what they call “cohabitation.” The popularity of both Mitterrand and Chirac have soared since the elections.
Much of Chirac’s speech, echoing his own campaign oratory and the theories of President Reagan and Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was a plea for a free market system in a country with a long tradition of state controls even under rightist governments.
“For decades--some would even say centuries--the French temptation above all was for state direction,” Chirac said. “Whether it was a question of economy or education, culture or research, new technologies or defense of the environment, the citizen has always turned to the state to ask for ideas and subsidies.”
Stifling of Liberties
Chirac said that, although it has some advantages, state direction stifles both the economy and individual liberties. The French, he said, “do not want it any more.”
The denationalization of state industries is a key element in the Chirac program. After the Cabinet meeting, the Chirac government announced that it would introduce legislation into the National Assembly that would authorize the government to use its powers of decree to sell a group of state banks, insurance companies, and corporations like the Elf-Aquitaine oil company and the Havas advertising agency.
But Mitterrand, according to his aides, told the Cabinet meeting that he would not sign decrees selling any state enterprise like Elf and Havas that were nationalized before he came to power. Nor, he went on, would he sign any denationalization decree that sold a company at too low a value or took away social advantages like employee representation on the board of directors.
According to many constitutional analysts, the president’s refusal to sign a decree would force Chirac to go through the cumbersome and risky process of trying to push legislation through the National Assembly to denationalize a company. Under the constitution, the president’s signature is required on decrees but not on legislation.
Under the constitution, the premier and the Cabinet set government policy and run the day-to-day operations of the government. The president, after appointing the premier and Cabinet, has largely negative powers, like refusing to sign decrees or dissolving the National Assembly. On top of this, the president, in the view of most constitutional analysts, has certain powers and duties in foreign affairs and defense. But the premier runs the External Relations Ministry and the Ministry of Defense.
These untested divisions of power have led to a good deal of confusion, and both Mitterrand and Chirac have tried, especially in the last two days, to set down their version of the rules of the constitutional game.
In a statement sent to the National Assembly on Tuesday, Mitterrand said that there was only one solution to the problem of cohabitation: “the constitution, nothing but the constitution, and the whole constitution.”
Mitterrand told the deputies that the president, the only French official elected by the voters of the nation as a whole, has the constitutional duty and power to assure the regular functioning of the government institutions, the continuity of the state, the territorial integrity of France, the national independence, the respect for treaties, the independence of justice, and civil rights and liberties.
On the specific issue of decrees, Mitterrand said they were constitutional, but he felt that they should be employed only from time to time.
Chirac, in his speech, was less specific about his view of the powers of the president, saying only that the president “incarnates the unity of the nation and the continuity of the state” and has been granted powers by the constitution to carry this out.