PARIS — Who runs France these days--President Francois Mitterrand or Prime Minister Jacques Chirac? The French people are obviously not sure. For two months, France has been caught in a new and bizarre two-headed political system with unclear lines of power. The system has no logic. It could even be dangerous. But if the polls are correct, it is also wildly popular.
For that reason alone, it may last. Neither Socialist Mitterrand nor right-wing Gaullist Chirac, with eyes on the next presidential elections, wants to be called the Grinch who brings it down.
The outside world got a glimpse of the confusion in Tokyo at the annual summit conference of industrialized nations. Where the other six nations were represented by one leader, France had two.
"France will speak in Tokyo with one voice as usual," a government spokesman had promised, "even if at times this voice will come from two different mouths."
In Tokyo, outsiders were treated to the subtlety of Mitterrand and Chirac trying to outmaneuver each other even while insisting that the relationship--the French call it cohabitation--works.
Polls reveal the confusion: Asked recently who they believed was now the chief executive of France, 41% replied Chirac, 40% replied Mitterrand, and 19% said they did not know. But, whoever is in charge, most French have good feelings about cohabitation--popularity ratings of both Mitterrand and Chirac have soared.
"The French like the situation," wrote journalist Noel-Jean Bergeroux in L'Express, "because it responds to the old dream of a reconciled country."
Confusion began in March when a conservative coalition won control of the National Assembly from the Socialists. For the first time, under the 1958 constitution written to suit the late President Charles de Gaulle, France had a president and a premier of different ideologies.
Until then, the president appeared to be an all-powerful figure who pulled a compliant prime minister around by the nose. A close reader of the constitution might have discovered that the prime minister was supposed to run the government. But De Gaulle, no matter what the constitution said in small print, regarded himself as chief of both state and government.
No prime minister had ever dared to run the government on his own. All previous prime ministers, including Chirac when he served under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, knew that their party's parliamentary deputies would support the president in any confrontation.
But now the president no longer controls the parliament. The prime minister, with a different political philosophy, does. With this authority, Chirac is determined to run the government and France.
There is little doubt that Mitterrand's power has been shorn. Some aides at his offices in the Elysee Palace report that their phones hardly ring any more. On most issues, Mitterrand's powers are largely negative: He can delay legislation, veto decrees and, if he wants to use his ultimate weapon, dissolve the Parliament.
On domestic issues, Mitterrand can thus butcher policy but not set it. Many French political scientists believe, however, that the constitution does grant the president considerable powers in the areas of foreign policy and defense.
Chirac does not agree entirely, and the first tensions of cohabitation have come in these fields. Both leaders, for example, have tried to claim responsibility for the French decision to bar American F-111 fighter-bombers from flying over France on their way to Libya.
In a television interview that infuriated Mitterrand, Chirac said that the president had agreed with "the decision I took."
In contradiction, Mitterrand aides leaked their account to Le Monde, the influential Paris newspaper. After Mitterrand received the request from President Reagan, according to the account, Mitterrand telephoned Chirac, the minister of foreign affairs and the minister of defense. All three, said Le Monde, "fell into agreement with the president."
Chirac almost certainly hurt his image by overreaching at Tokyo. Despite a warning from former President Giscard that it would be ridiculous for France to be represented in tandem, Chirac decided that he could not allow Mitterrand to have the world summit stage to himself.
To avoid embarrassing the sensitive Japanese, who had made arrangements for only one French leader at the top, Chirac flew in a day after the summit opened, missing the traditional private dinner for leaders. He also missed the drafting of declarations on terrorism and the Soviet nuclear disaster, arriving only in time to read them and give assent.
At the end of the summit, Chirac found himself in the humiliating position of attending Mitterrand's news conference with nothing more to do than sit smiling, smoking--and silent. To make matters worse, White House spokesman Larry Speakes kept referring to him as Foreign Minister Chirac.