THE French presidency is at once the most powerful chief executive among the Western democracies and potentially one of the weakest.
Much depends on whether the president's party controls Parliament. Outgoing President Francois Mitterrand held office for 14 years, but during only 10 of them did he enjoy having his party, the Socialists, in control of Parliament -- and hence the ability to appoint a prime minister and government of his own choosing.
After the Socialists lost control of Parliament to conservatives in 1993, President Mitterrand was left at the margins of domestic policymaking. But even without a governing majority, a French president can make his presence felt.
For Charles de Gaulle, the first president under the 1958 Constitution that established the Fifth Republic, that meant taking emergency powers when conflict over Algeria threatened to ignite civil war in France. Subsequent presidents have extended such authority into national defense, foreign policy, and certain major construction projects. De Gaulle launched ''grand'' industrial projects; his successor, Georges Pompidou grand cultural projects; and Mitterrand, several of the most controversial buildings in the history of the capital.
French presidents since De Gaulle have set the main lines of French foreign policy, including a commitment to Europe and commitment of French troops in Africa and the Middle East.
The French head of state enjoys a seven-year term, with no limits on reelection. He can call for a public referendum and dissolve Parliament. He can be removed from office only for crimes of high treason -- illegal wiretaps from the lysee during the Mitterrand years had none of the legal fallout they did for President Nixon. The Constitution also gives the president the responsibility of ensuring the ''regular functioning'' of the state.
But most of his official acts still must be countersigned by the prime minister, who is responsible to the Parliament. In practice, a president who can count on a working majority in Parliament will find it easier to implement his own political priorities than one who cannot.