In France, Two Heads Are Not Always Better

French Constitution doesn't spell out who leads foreign policy in a divided government

The 69th Franco-German summit had all the trappings of summits past: Two earnest heads of state meet at the end of a red carpet, stride purposefully past military honor guards and banks of television cameras, and emerge hours later with a strong statement to guide the future of Europe.

German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and French President Valry Giscard d'Estaing did it in 1978, when they proposed the European monetary system that was to link Europe's currencies. In 1990, Helmut Kohl and Franois Mitterrand launched what became Europe's plan for monetary and political union.

Last Friday, Chancellor Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac were to have done the same. A clear statement of purpose at the close of their summit in Poitiers, France, would have set the tone for today's European summit in Amsterdam and confirmed the 15-member European Union's move toward monetary union and future expansion.

Instead, a third man got in the way. The band and honor guard had been dismissed and the red carpet rolled halfway up the sidewalk when new French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin roared up in a gray Peugeot.

But no one at the Poitiers summit doubted that Mr. Jospin, the man without the honor guard, held the key to the future of nearly 20 years of Franco-German plans for Europe.

Welcome to "cohabitation," a peculiarity of the French Constitution that allows a president elected to a seven-year term to share powers with an opposition prime minister and Cabinet elected separately - without spelling out how their powers should be shared.

The drafters of the 1958 Constitution seem to have expected that a president who had lost his mandate at the polls would simply resign. President Charles de Gaulle, who dictated the Constitution, resigned in 1969 after losing a minor referendum. But no other presidents have followed his lead.

Voters didn't heed Chirac

During last month's legislative election campaign, President Chirac appealed to voters to support his fellow conservative candidates so that France could "speak with one voice" to defend its interests in the world. They did not heed his voice, and on June 1 returned an opposition majority to the National Assembly led by Jospin, a Socialist.

France has had three such "cohabitations," and Germany's Kohl has lived through all of them. As a close observer of the French system, he promises to write about it - after he retires from government.

The first cohabitation (1986-88) appears to have been as much of a nightmare for foreign diplomats as it was for France.

Take, for example, the seating arrangements at the 1986 Tokyo summit of the leaders of the seven top industrial nations (G-7). Its Japanese hosts were reduced to bouts of anxious giggling as both French President Mitterrand and his new opposition prime minister insisted on the lone French seat at the table, according to published memoirs. In the end, then-Prime Minister Chirac agreed to forgo the heads-of-state dinner and arrive late for negotiating sessions.

Two-headed foreign policy

In 1986, Chirac insisted that as prime minister he would "occupy the international terrain," including meeting with Kohl, visiting African leaders, and signing European agreements. He had campaigned to support President Reagan's strategic defense initiative (popularly known as "star wars") and to challenge Spain and Portugal's bid to join the EU.

But he backed off after strong opposition from Mitterrand.

"France will never participate [in star wars] as long as I am here. If you insist, I will make a referendum on this issue, and I will win," Mitterrand told his prime minister, according to presidential adviser Jacques Attali.

During the second cohabitation (1993-95), the long knives were put away, but Mitterrand still insisted on being consulted on all appointments related to defense or foreign policy. Before nominating conservative Edouard Balladur as prime minister, Mitterrand demanded that Mr. Balladur agree to support continuity on European policy.

Now president, Chirac is in a much weaker position to enforce his own foreign policy preferences. His decision to call French elections 10 months early was clearly repudiated by the voters. Also, he faces five years as a lame duck president, while presidents in the past two cohabitations faced only two.

Prime Minister Jospin campaigned to change the direction of European policy to focus more resources on job creation, including revisiting the European economic stability pact negotiated in Dublin last December. Jospin said he would not be bound by the pact, which commits France to keep public deficits below 3 percent of gross domestic product.

Conservatives argued that the stability pact is binding, but late in the campaign appeared to move closer to the Socialist position. Both Chirac and outgoing Prime Minister Alain Juppe said that Europe's monetary policy should not be left just to bankers.

"Europe must now give itself the social dimension that Europeans are waiting for," Chirac said five days before the June 1 runoff vote. In a closing statement after the Poitiers summit last Friday, he renewed this call.

"Europe is the region in the world where growth is the most feeble, and we must ask ourselves if something is wrong," he said, adding that he had pushed the ideas "that are today the ideas of the [Socialist-led] government."

According to a member of the German delegation, in private talks with the German leader Chirac said that in the end France would keep its European commitments but that the June 1 vote "complicated the situation."

Kohl opposed negotiating new terms for a single currency and rejected any new spending or new bureaucracies to create work.

"We don't want new funds ... transferred to Brussels," he said in a closing statement. "The idea of spending the same money twice is over."

'Prime minister is the boss'

But Jospin appears to have stood his ground in Poitiers. "We're not asking for a renegotiation, but France has had a change in government, and that must be taken into account," said Manuel Vals, a spokesman for the prime minister. "A page has been turned. What's clear from this summit is that the prime minister is the boss."

Added Mr. Vals: "[The] Amsterdam [summit] is just a starting off point. It's the beginning of important changes. We must have a framework for job creation in Europe that is as clearly defined and as constraining as the stability pact. Europe will be in a deep crisis in six months if there is not a change in direction."

Street rallies in Paris and Amsterdam seemed to make the same point. On June 10, some 50,000 protesters marched in Paris demanding more jobs. On Saturday, more than 35,000 marched in Amsterdam calling for help for Europe's 18 million unemployed.

For now, at least, France is trying to speak with one voice. But it is at the expense of a single Franco-German voice on Europe - and Europe has never made a step forward without that.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.