Why Mitterrand is qualified to make power sharing work
THOSE who predict dire consequences from the recent French elections for the future of the Fifth Republic understand neither the republic's institutions nor its incumbent President. Charles de Gaulle designed the Fifth Republic to insulate the popularly elected President from domestic politics and allow him to preside over a national consensus on foreign policy. Today's President, Fran,cois Mitterrand, is particularly well qualified to confine himself to this role. He has shown an extraordinary talent for advancing by adapting to political circumstances. De Gaulle designed the Fifth Republic to correct what he saw as the fatal flaw of the Third and Fourth Republics: the incapacity to produce national unity in time of crisis. This meant the early collapse of the Third Republic in 1940 in the war against Germany, and the collapse of the Fourth Republic in the face of the Algerian war. As the man who picked up the pieces after both collapses, de Gaulle wanted a republic that could survive such crises.Skip to next paragraph
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In de Gaulle's republic the president, the only official elected nationally, has the prime responsibility for foreign policy and defense. In a national crisis he can act quickly as the embodiment of the national will. He is protected from the divisive effects of domestic policy by the prime minister, who depends for his support on a majority in the National Assembly.
The President is therefore in an excellent position to ignore partisan shifts in the Assembly's majority. It is the prime minister whose authority rests on a partisan majority in the legislature and whose mission is the conduct of domestic policies, those most susceptible to partisan differences. If, as was true for Mr. Giscard d'Estaing, the President's party is the minor partner in the governing coalition -- or, as for Mr. Mitterrand now, the President's party is in opposition -- the President can restrict his activities to those that are his constitutional preserve.
For a president running for reelection, as is Mitterrand, this is not an unattractive option. To leave to a prime minister of another party the task of resolving such problems as unemployment, inflation, and immigration is no handicap. Mitterrand's future opponents for the presidency know this. It explains Jacques Chirac's lack of enthusiasm for the job of prime minister. It explains too the declaration of Raymond Barre, another aspirant for the presidency, that such shared power, which the French call cohabitation, is not workable and that he would not serve under Mitterrand.
Both Chirac and Barre know that, in contrast to domestic policy, there is little controversy over foreign policy. It is difficult to know where the present majority would come into conflict with Mitterrand, though they might fault him for execution. He has observed the consensus on foreign policy fashioned by de Gaulle and continued by Georges Pompidou and Giscard.
This has meant dealing with the superpowers evenhandedly while maintaining France's independent nuclear force. It has meant cultivating the special relationship with Germany and using the European Community to bolster France's economic position. It has meant continuing to trade arms for Arab oil and to act as policeman to former French black African colonies.