Cracks widen in the Mitterrand-Chirac partnership in France. Economic, political, and ideological differences may force call for early elections

Jacques Chirac's honeymoon is over. Barely two months after forming France's conservative government, the new prime minister is feeling squeezed. His own supporters want faster action to turn around the languishing economy. At the same time, Socialist President Fran,cois Mitterrand wants him to slow down. The upshot may be early elections, either this autumn or in the first few months of next year.

This uncertain political situation stems from unprecedented power-sharing between left and right. No previous president in recent French history has faced a hostile Parliament. But when the conservatives won a narrow victory in March's legislative election, President Mitterrand was forced to pick Mr. Chirac as prime minister, even though the two men are ideological enemies.

The resulting marriage, which the French call ``cohabitation,'' has turned into an armed truce. All eyes are fixed on winning the presidency.

Chirac's advisers hope that a successful stint in government will provide the best launching pad for a presidential bid, a smoothing over of their man's reputedly rough and rambunctious edges. ``We must show results,'' says Denis Baudouin, Chirac's spokesman, ``particularly on security and the economy.''

Such results are difficult to achieve. Unemployment refuses to fall, and last month the rate even rose slightly, to about 10 percent. Mr. Baudouin admits that the government's gradual lowering of interest rates and its laissez-faire policies are not going to create jobs immediately. In recent days, ministers have made anguished appeals to businessmen for help. But the Patronat, the lobby for France's bosses, has responded only with complaints that Chirac's government has removed too few economic controls.

``Chirac promised to carry out a Reagan revolution,'' says Philippe Moreau-Defarges of the French Institute of International Relations, ``and he can't possibly satisfy those demands.''

When the prime minister does move to satisfy his supporters demands, he encounters problems. A plan to privatize France's main state-owned television station has resulted in a strike by television employees and a wave of organized opposition. A proposed bill to allow employers greater flexibility in firing workers has provoked opposition even with Chirac's own Gaullists. ``Unemployment will rise in the coming months,'' warns Social Affairs Minister Philippe Seguin, who almost reisgned over the bill. ``We must not move too quickly.''

Chirac also must move cautiously with President Mitterrand. The President has voiced opposition to a broad range of programs, from electoral reform to stiff police powers to privatizing state industry.

Although Mitterrand has no veto power such as a United States president has, he sees his role as ``an umpire.'' His advisers at the Elys'ee Palace say he will use his office as a bully pupit, voicing his opposition to measures which he thinks are unjust or will disturb ``the unity of France.''

In particular, Mitterrand insists on playing the statesman. While Elys'ee Palace advisers insist that the Chirac government has full reign to handle economic affairs and the rest of domestic policy, Mitterrand continues to guide foreign policy, even when the prime minister publicly disagrees. Take the crucial question of President Reagan's research program into space-based defense. Mitterrand opposes an official French role in the Strategic Defense Initiative. But when Chirac recently declared, ``I won't let France be left out of SDI,'' he seemed to be announcing a change in French policy. Later statements, though, continued to rule out any official government to government agreement like Washington reached with London and Bonn.

Mitterrand's role as statesman is proving popular. In opinion polls, his approval rating stood at a low 35 percent in January and at only 42 percent in April. Now its up to some 55 percent.

These figures have given the President plenty of authority to make his criticisms heard -- and they could tempt him to use his right to call early elections. In recent weeks, the Socialists have begun mobilizing. All the major factions publicly have promised to back the President if he should decide to stand once again. He will reach the age of 70 next October, but his Elys'ee Palace advisers drop hints that ``the President still feels he has work to accomplish.''

But Mitterrand must remain cagey. If either he or Chirac is perceived as sabatoging the government cohabitation, political analysts say he will be punished at the polls. As unnatural as cohabitation between right and left seems, opinion polls show that some 60 percent of French voters hope it will work.

As Franz-Olivier Giesbert, editor of the Nouvel Observateur, has observed, ``It's like a new kind of gunfight, in which the one who shoots first winds up dead.''

After years of political feuding, the public seems to be saying that power-sharing has brought politicial civility to France. Cohabitation, analysts add, satisfies a desire for national reconciliation.

Supporting this are the fraying radical edges of the political fabric. The Communists scored just less than 10 percent in March's election, and party leader Georges Marchais has announced that he will not contest the next presidential elections. The extreme-right National Front, which also scored just less than 10 percent, is expected to disappear from Parliament if, as expected, the winner-take-all electoral system is reimposed.

In French politics, the center now dominates. Opinion polls show that the public wants less government red tape -- Chirac's program. They also show that the public wants to maintain significant social benefits -- Mitterrand's program. Cohabitation thus answers a need for checks and balances.

With Parliament getting used to exercising more power than ever before in the presidential regime of the nation, analysts predict that cohabitation will have long-lasting effects on the country.

``Mitterrand has the advantage because Chirac doesn't have the time he needs to get results,'' concludes Christian Fauvet, political editor of the newsweekly L'Express. ``But no president ever again will have unlimited power as in the past.''

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