. . . and France Now Has Two Heads

<i> Stanley Meisler is The Times' correspondent in Paris. </i>

Who runs France these days--President Francois Mitterrand or Prime Minister Jacques Chirac? The French people are obviously not sure. For two months, France has been caught in a new and bizarre two-headed political system with unclear lines of power. The system has no logic. It could even be dangerous. But if the polls are correct, it is also wildly popular.

For that reason alone, it may last. Neither Socialist Mitterrand nor right-wing Gaullist Chirac, with eyes on the next presidential elections, wants to be called the Grinch who brings it down.

The outside world got a glimpse of the confusion in Tokyo at the annual summit conference of industrialized nations. Where the other six nations were represented by one leader, France had two.


“France will speak in Tokyo with one voice as usual,” a government spokesman had promised, “even if at times this voice will come from two different mouths.”

In Tokyo, outsiders were treated to the subtlety of Mitterrand and Chirac trying to outmaneuver each other even while insisting that the relationship--the French call it cohabitation--works.

Polls reveal the confusion: Asked recently who they believed was now the chief executive of France, 41% replied Chirac, 40% replied Mitterrand, and 19% said they did not know. But, whoever is in charge, most French have good feelings about cohabitation--popularity ratings of both Mitterrand and Chirac have soared.

“The French like the situation,” wrote journalist Noel-Jean Bergeroux in L’Express, “because it responds to the old dream of a reconciled country.”

Confusion began in March when a conservative coalition won control of the National Assembly from the Socialists. For the first time, under the 1958 constitution written to suit the late President Charles de Gaulle, France had a president and a premier of different ideologies.

Until then, the president appeared to be an all-powerful figure who pulled a compliant prime minister around by the nose. A close reader of the constitution might have discovered that the prime minister was supposed to run the government. But De Gaulle, no matter what the constitution said in small print, regarded himself as chief of both state and government.

No prime minister had ever dared to run the government on his own. All previous prime ministers, including Chirac when he served under President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, knew that their party’s parliamentary deputies would support the president in any confrontation.

But now the president no longer controls the parliament. The prime minister, with a different political philosophy, does. With this authority, Chirac is determined to run the government and France.

There is little doubt that Mitterrand’s power has been shorn. Some aides at his offices in the Elysee Palace report that their phones hardly ring any more. On most issues, Mitterrand’s powers are largely negative: He can delay legislation, veto decrees and, if he wants to use his ultimate weapon, dissolve the Parliament.

On domestic issues, Mitterrand can thus butcher policy but not set it. Many French political scientists believe, however, that the constitution does grant the president considerable powers in the areas of foreign policy and defense.

Chirac does not agree entirely, and the first tensions of cohabitation have come in these fields. Both leaders, for example, have tried to claim responsibility for the French decision to bar American F-111 fighter-bombers from flying over France on their way to Libya.

In a television interview that infuriated Mitterrand, Chirac said that the president had agreed with “the decision I took.”

In contradiction, Mitterrand aides leaked their account to Le Monde, the influential Paris newspaper. After Mitterrand received the request from President Reagan, according to the account, Mitterrand telephoned Chirac, the minister of foreign affairs and the minister of defense. All three, said Le Monde, “fell into agreement with the president.”

Chirac almost certainly hurt his image by overreaching at Tokyo. Despite a warning from former President Giscard that it would be ridiculous for France to be represented in tandem, Chirac decided that he could not allow Mitterrand to have the world summit stage to himself.

To avoid embarrassing the sensitive Japanese, who had made arrangements for only one French leader at the top, Chirac flew in a day after the summit opened, missing the traditional private dinner for leaders. He also missed the drafting of declarations on terrorism and the Soviet nuclear disaster, arriving only in time to read them and give assent.

At the end of the summit, Chirac found himself in the humiliating position of attending Mitterrand’s news conference with nothing more to do than sit smiling, smoking--and silent. To make matters worse, White House spokesman Larry Speakes kept referring to him as Foreign Minister Chirac.

Although Chirac holds most real power these days, Mitterrand could ultimately win the battle of image--and image may count as much or more in campaigns for the presidential election that must take place by 1988.

The tall, energetic, 53-year-old Chirac clearly wants to become president and erase all leadership doubts. Mitterrand will be 71 in 1988; he may not run for a second term but the chances of a Socialist candidate in the election depend on what happens during cohabitation.

Olivier Duhamel, a well-known professor of constitutional law, recently warned against counting out the president; Mitterrand holds a line of power because of his direct election by a majority of the voters of France. “Mitterrand is one of those rare French political men who knows how to master time,” said Duhamel. “He can take in a lot of oxygen before plunging underwater and reappearing spectacularly. . . . We will see the progressive reappearance of Francois Mitterrand in the sharing of power.”

All this makes for fascinating political times; the only problem is that it may be more interesting than logical. It also may harbor a potential for danger.

On defense matters, the constitution is ambiguous: The president commands the armed forces but the prime minister is responsible for national defense. France has the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal; what if one leader feels compelled to use it while the other does not?

Many French analysts believe there would be quick consensus in an emergency. Yet no one would have been astounded if Chirac and Mitterrand had disagreed on the request to allow U.S. planes over France. Who would have prevailed if they had disagreed? No one here seems to know.