THE unexpected honeymoon that has lasted four months between French Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and conservative Gaullist Prime Minister Edouard Balladur may be on the verge of breaking up over the sensitive issue of political asylum.
Whether a split occurs depends on whether the leaders believe they, and France, can afford a bruising fight right now. Such a battle would pit growing French concerns over immigration against the country's longstanding self-image as a refuge for the world's politically persecuted.
The government, which saw several crucial elements of a new asylum law thrown out by the Constitutional Council earlier this month, is determined to see the law's full impact restored, Mr. Balladur said in a wide-ranging press conference Wednesday.
But if the prime minister decides to seek a revision of the Constitution to do this, he is likely to collide with Mr. Mitterrand.
The council, which reviews legislation for its constitutionality, struck down eight of 52 measures which sought to restrict family reunification and an asylum seeker's right to appeal. Balladur says the ruling does not conform with new European Community accords, which France will enforce Dec. 1. The accords limit refugees arriving in the EC to seeking asylum in one country. Popularity contest
Mitterrand's strong support for asylum rights could lead him to block a constitutional revision through the parliament. That would leave Balladur with the final option of pursuing a referendum - a vote that analysts here say would come down to a popularity contest between the two leaders, with the prime minister almost certain to win.
Polls show Balladur enjoying a 64 percent approval rate, far surpassing Mitterrand's ratings. Judgment of Balladur's performance on France's slumbering economy is much harsher - only 40 percent approve. But measures he announced Wednesday to cut income taxes next year by more than $3 billion, or about 5 percent for middle-income earners, could shore up that support.
Still, Balladur, who cultivates an aura of calm and eschews polemics, may not want to trouble further an autumn that most observers expect to be difficult.
Already, Wednesday's broad press conference was by French standards an unusual attempt to rally public support and head off growing criticism. Many economists say Balladur's policy of maintaining high interest rates to prop up the franc is unnecessarily extending the French recession. A xenophobic delight
With economic activity shrinking and unemployment heading for 12.5 percent by the end of the year, a public debate on immigration might thrill France's xenophobic far right, but would not encourage the sort of focus that Balladur wants.
But a high-level battle over asylum may be unavoidable. And that would not displease Balladur's most conservative Gaullist partners, for whom the cozy Mitterrand-Balladur relationship has lasted long enough.