Chirac is emerging as first among equals in French government. He sets tough tone, moves into foreign policy
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.''