Paris — When President Franois Mitterrand named Laurent Fabius prime minister in 1984, he confided that his brilliant and pragmatic prot'eg'e ``best translates my philosophy.'' So close were the two men's thoughts, the President suggested, that ``not even a piece of paper could be placed between us.''
Mr. Mitterrand was wrong.
In an unprecedented public squabble, Prime Minister Fabius disagreed with Mitterrand's decision last week to meet with Poland's Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. Answering a question in Parliament, Fabius said he was ``personally troubled'' by the visit. During the ensuing upheaval, Fabius reportedly offered his resignation, only to have Mitterrand reject it. Both men now say that Fabius will stay on as leader of the government.
Even with Fabius retaining his post, the split may have caused lasting problems. It represents the first time since the Fifth Republic began in 1958 that a president and his prime minister had disagreed in public on a specific and controversial foreign affairs issue.
The divisions within Mitterand's beleaguered Socialist Party have deepened as March's parliamentary elections approach. And Fabius has been weakened in his role as leader of the Socialist election campaign.
France's looming constitutional crisis now looks hotter, too. Though the conservative opposition is expected to win a large majority in Parliament, Mitterrand plans to serve out the last two years of his presidential term. He says he will delegate domestic policy to a new conservative prime minister while continuing to rule over a national consensus on foreign policy.
The Jaruzelski visit broke that consensus. After the Polish leader declared martial law in 1981, smashing the Solidarity trade-union movement, the Mitterrand government led European opposition to the move. Even when martial law was lifted in 1983, criticism didn't let up.
So Mitterrand's recent about-face precipitated large popular demonstrations, and a firestorm of protest from across the most of the political spectrum.
Opposition leaders made clear that Mitterrand will not be able to force on them the foreign policy initiatives he forced on a government of his own party, headed by a prime minister of his own choosing. The opposition also took the opportunity to criticize what it described as the ``incoherence'' of the Mitterrand government.
Fabius, however, may have come out worst of all. Until recently, the prime minister was very popular; his youth, intelligence, and pragmatism bringing him higher scores in the polls than the Socialists as a whole.
But in October he fared poorly in a television debate with Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac. Now even Socialists who agree with his views on the Jaruzelski visit are criticizing Fabius for voicing them publicly. The most recent public opinion poll showed Fabius's popularity to have declined 8 percent during the past month.
While Mitterrand reportedly was angered by Fabius's behavior, he evidently does not want to lose his prime minister three months before the elections. So he is trying to smooth over their dispute.
``Why would you want me to deprive myself of a good government and a good prime minister?'' he asked an interviewer. He said he felt ``a harmony of thought and action'' with Fabius -- in ``practically'' all areas.