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France: a Toe in New Waters

March 19, 1986

For the first time since Charles de Gaulle designed a new constitution in 1958, France has a president from one party and a prime minister from another. No one knows how the power-sharing between the Socialist Party and its conservative adversaries will work out, but earlier concerns over the possibility of political paralysis were diminished by the surprising closeness of the vote in Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Close to 20% of the vote was evenly divided between the Communists--whose decline as a major political force was confirmed--and the racist, right-wing National Front, which will be represented in the National Assembly for the first time. Despite the rise of the National Front, most French citizens obviously voted for moderation.

President Francois Mitterrand's Socialists lost their majority in the National Assembly, as was expected. But the two large right-of-center parties will actually need the help of 14 independent conservatives to form a parliamentary majority. With Mitterrand still in the presidentialpalace, conservative parties will have trouble keeping their campaign promises to turn most government-owned businesses back to private enterprise and remove the barriers to dismissal of surplus workers.

Under the French constitution the president and the prime minister share responsibility for policymaking--a situation that causes no problems when both are from the same party, but invites partisan conflict when they are not.

A whole fistful of prominent French politicians will be trying to position themselves for the 1988 presidential election. Jacques Chirac, head of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic party and Mitterrand's choice to be prime minister, is one. Another is former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, leader of the Union for French Democracy. Their posturing for votes could take a nationalistic turn that would be uncomfortable for France's allies. But that will be tempered by the fact that the Socialists and the major conservative parties all support a strong defense and cooperation with allied countries. Even on domestic issues, the ideological divide is not as wide as it used to be.

Then, too, Mitterrand and presidential aspirants of the right will want to avoid blame for paralyzing the French government through excessive partisanship--especially in light of the close election.

The fact remains, though, that the French political system is moving into uncharted waters, and that it will be very difficult for a divided government to act with the authority and cohesion that has been the hallmark of French democracy for more than a quarter-century.

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