Chirac is emerging as first among equals in French government. He sets tough tone, moves into foreign policy
Paris — At the 'Elys'ee Palace, officials work in a leisurely way. Across the Seine River, at Hotel Matignon on the Left Bank, officials rush to appointments, their faces gripped with concentration. The different atmospheres illustrate France's balance of power. French President Francois Mitterrand occupies the 'Elys'ee Palace, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac the Hotel Matignon, an 18th-century chateau. After the two men have shared power for eight months, Mr. Chirac seems to have grabbed the initiative.
Chirac's preeminence has been underscored by recent French efforts to deal with Middle Eastern terrorism through a policy of reconciliation and cooperation with Syria and Iran. When bombs exploded on Paris streets in September, the prime minister went on television to calm the nation. The President remained silent. When two French hostages were released this week, the prime minister went to Orly Airport to greet them. The President stayed away.
``Chirac controls almost all the levers of government,'' commented Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French Institute of Foreign Relations. ``Mitterrand can annoy him, perhaps dissuade him from doing a few things, but nothing more.''
Originally, the power-sharing arrangement set up last spring - termed ``cohabitation'' - was not envisioned in such terms. Most analysts predicted that the President would continue to direct foreign policy and defense. Mr. Mitterrand described these two areas as his ``reserved domain.''
Chirac, in turn, was expected to concentrate on running domestic affairs. While the prime minister did expend most of his energy at first on reshaping the country's economic policy, he soon began to carve out a niche in foreign policy. He insisted on traveling with the President to the Tokyo summit. He also insisted on meeting personally with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Recent foreign-policy initiatives also bear the Chirac imprint. Among these was the French decision to resist a British request to withdraw its ambassador from Syria. Instead, the French have multiplied official contacts with Damascus, looking for help in gaining the release of French hostages in Beirut and in preventing a resumption of terrorist bombings in Paris. Mitterrand has criticized this policy, saying that ``no compromise can be made with terrorists.'' But the prime minister has made it clear he will continue to pursue just such a policy.
Analysts offer several reasons - institutional, political, and personal - for Chirac's prominence. In the past, the President always appointed a prime minister of his own party, making it easy for him to dominate. But Chirac's conservative coalition gained an absolute parliamentary majority last spring, forcing Mitterrand to name him as premier. According to the French Constitution, the prime minister is responsible for running the country, including its foreign policy.
``Without the prime minister on his side, the President has no direct lever over the power structure,'' said Mr. Moreau Defarges. ``The prime minister controls the ministries and the Parliament.''
Political calculation adds to presidential caution. Although Mitterrand can dissolve Parliament, opinion polls show that the French electorate likes the present power-sharing arrangement, any anyone who threatens it would be punished at the ballot box.
A blunt, combative, ambitious man, Chirac has earned the nickname ``the bulldozer.'' He is used to being out front, mowing down opponents and attacking difficult problems head-on. In many ways, simple aggressiveness has allowed him to gain control of the government.
To supporters, the prime minister's energy inspires confidence in him as the strong man needed to lead France. To opponents, it inspires fear that he will sell his soul to get results.
Both of these reactions are evident in the response to Chirac's success this week in convincing Iran and Syria to help free two French hostages. Serge July of the daily Lib'eration criticized him for being ``ready to pay so much in his international credibility to obtain the freedom of French hostages.'' Former Gaullist Prime Minister Michel Debre praised him as ``protecting French interests in the Middle East.''
Chirac's policy reflects traditional Gaullist concerns. As president in the 1960s, Charles de Gaulle attempted to chart a course independent of both superpowers. In the Middle East, this translated into an active role that aimed at forming a ``special'' relationship with Arab states.
Chirac now wants to forge his own special relationship. The recent decision to repay $330 million owed to Iran is a step towards this. And although he acknowledges a distaste for Syria's leaders, Chirac insists that Syria must be wooed if the West is to have any constructive influence on what happens to Lebanon, or upon the evolution of the Syrian-Israeli conflict. In particular, Chirac believes Syria can help him gain the release of the six remaining French hostages held in Beirut, prevent a renewal of Middle Eastern bombings in Paris, and protect Lebanon's Christian community.
The other French objectives are part commercial and part political. Chirac hopes to gain France valuable export orders in the region and to prevent the rise of anti-Western Muslim fundamentalism.
From this perspective, Chirac criticizes United States policy in the region. When US Secretary of State George Shultz visited Paris last week, the French premier didn't ask for understanding of France's refusal to condemn Syrian support of terrorism. Instead, he reportedly lambasted his visitor, telling him that France is the only Western country still present in any force in Lebanon, the only Western country with a coherent Middle Eastern policy.
Polls show that most Frenchmen want their country to play an active role in the Mideast. Unlike in the US, few here question the morality of romancing dealing with unsavory regimes. Whether the policy succeeds is what the French regard as most important.
``Chirac is acting like it was the 1920s'' when Syria and Lebanon were French protectorates, says analyst Oliver Todd. ``We're negotiating from a position of weakness. Tomorrow, more Frenchmen could be kidnapped. What price then would we have to pay?''