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.
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.
Given the constitutional division of labor and consensus on foreign policy, Mitterrand appears in an excellent position to make cohabitation work. He is also the best equipped of France's political leaders to pioneer the experiment. No other French politician, except de Gaulle, has been more successful at navigating through uncharted political waters. Mitterrand's adherence to the Socialist Party came late. In the Fourth Republic, Mitterrand moved easily between opposing political camps as the member of a small political group skilled at gaining Cabinet posts. He served in the Cabinets of conservative Joseph Laniel and of reformist Pierre Mendes-France. Only when de Gaulle's Fifth Republic appeared to rule out a political future for Mitterrand and the Socialist Party did the two join forces.
Those who say that Mitterrand's conversion to socialism, though late, was deep point to the policies the Socialist government initiated upon coming to power and assert that Mitterrand will now do battle to maintain its accomplishments. They should, however, remember two things. The Socialists under Mitterrand nationalized ailing companies, banks, and utilities, in a time of economic difficulty. This policy and the Socialists' spending policies followed upon the failed economic policies of Mitterrand's predecessor, the liberal economist Giscard. Faced with the failure of his own policies in dealing with stagflation, Mitterrand moved easily to more-austere measures. When these proved more successful in reducing inflation than unemployment, Mitterrand bore with equanimity the departure of the Communists from government over this result.
He may well be able to bear up equally under any privatization the current majority will be able to enact. He is, after all, the Socialist President who has presided over the privatization of the state-run television, decreased government regulation of the stock exchange, and lent his prestige to that bastion of private entrepreneurship, the fashion industry.
This then is a Socialist President perfectly capable of putting his constitutional duties before his socialism in an effort to make cohabitation work. His actions before and after the elections indicate he has every intention of doing so. Before the elections he made it clear he had a legitimate electoral mandate to fulfill until the end of his term. After the elections, despite rumors to the contrary, he moved immediately to respect the electoral mandate represented by the results of the legislative elections. He immediately appointed a new prime minister, although he had until April and the convening of the new Assembly to do so. Despite rumors that he would search for a more compatible figure, he appointed the neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac, leader of the largest partner in the winning coalition, as prime minister. Mitterrand's expression of interest in the prime minister's Cabinet appointments touched only on those to the ministries of foreign affairs and defense, the areas of his prime responsibility. Here he and Mr. Chirac were able to agree on two ``nonpolitical'' appointments: the ambassador to the Soviet Union as foreign minister; a former head of the Atomic Energy Commission as minister of defense. Not all issues between himself and Chirac may be resolved so easily. As both position themselves for the presidential contest, the working relationship may well break down. But it will occur in spite of the Socialist President's efforts to demonstrate that the institutions of the Fifth Republic can accommodate a president and a prime minister of opposing parties.
Mildred Schlesinger teaches political science at Michigan State University and international relations at James Madison College at Michigan State University.