As in most marriages, the rules for pairing the president and prime minister in France are vague. Under the Fifth Republic's Constitution, the prime minister is head of government. He must have the support of Parliament. The president is head of state. He enjoys strong executive powers.
The system was designed to end the revolving-door parliamentary governments of the Fourth Republic and was tailored specifically for Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who commanded majority backing in the National Assembly, the French Parliament's lower house.
Now for the first time, a president faces a hostile Assembly. That promises to bring Parliament out of its background role. It also promises to make the prime minister, formally the servant of the president, more influential.
According to the Constitution, the prime minister ``determines and conducts policy.'' This means he issues regulations and certain decrees, controls the civil service, and is responsible for drafting and getting laws passed. Although the prime minister followed presidential orders in the past, the Constitution allows him to go to Parliament with his own program. Unlike the United States, the president holds no veto power over legislation. After a maximum 15-day delay, he must sign.
Nevertheless, the presidency is no ceremonial post. While the president cannot dismiss the prime minister, he names him. He can dismiss the National Assembly, call referendums, and veto many decrees (not laws) and appointments. President Fran,cois Mitterrand already has threatened to use these powers by telling Jacques Chirac (who, at press time, was expected to accept the post) that Mitterrand would not accept certain appointments or sign decrees permitting a conservative prime minister to bypass Parliament with a batch of economic bills.
Most important, the president is commander in chief of the armed forces. Mitterrand has argued that this role leaves him to direct the country's affairs abroad, ``since foreign affairs are tied closely to defense policy.''
Such interpretations of the Constitution can be interpreted in various ways, creating possibilities for future discord.
Even when the president and prime minister come from the same political sector, they have battled. Mitterrand has quarreled with his two Socialist prime ministers: Pierre Mauroy originally opposed economic austerity and Laurent Fabius opposed the visit to Paris of Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.
In these cases, little changed. Mitterrand simply overruled them and continued to rule at his convenience. But with a conservative as prime minister, such matrimonial spats won't be settled so easily.