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PARIS — The French attach so much importance to their government institutions that they change them more often than any other people. They’ve had five republics and 16 constitutions in the past 200 or so years!

The constitution has remained the same, however, since 1958, when it was submitted to a referendum by Gen. Charles de Gaulle and approved by a wide margin. Since then it has undergone several minor amendments, which were mostly necessitated by the development of European unity. The greatest change, however, is that of cohabitation, which has taken place without any legal modifications to the constitution, and affects the daily functioning of the state.

De Gaulle’s essential aim in creating the 1958 constitution was to give the French people the powerful leader that they so required. To escape the “reign of the parties” that de Gaulle so feared, it was initially written in the constitution that the president would be appointed by a college consisting of 75,000 “great electors” who would be drawn from virtually all elected bodies. However, the general didn’t feel satisfied with that solution. In 1962, when several murder attempts against him underlined the need of giving his successor as much legitimacy as possible, he decided the better solution would be to elect the president by popular vote. In a subsequent referendum, the French people gave their overwhelming approval to de Gaulle’s idea.

Since de Gaulle’s retirement in 1969, four French presidents have been elected to a traditional seven-year term. Because the assembly holds elections every five years, and the government requires a majority, the risk of a split between the head of state on one side, and the Cabinet and the assembly on the other, ought to have occurred to the authors of the constitution. But the problem appeared relatively minor at the time the document was drafted due to the existence of a huge Communist Party, whose reconciliation with the Socialists seemed impossible. Francois Mitterrand broke the rules when he made an alliance with the Reds and went on to win the 1981 presidential election. The assembly elected three years earlier had a rightist majority, but Mitterrand invoked his constitutional right to dissolve the Parliament and called for a new general election. The outcome was a victory for the left and the Socialist Party gained an absolute majority.

Things began to change for the left when a new parliamentary election took place in 1986 and the right and the center won a majority. Some observers expected Mitterrand to resign, but he stayed in power and appointed Jacques Chirac, head of the most victorious party, prime minister. Mitterrand remained true to the spirit of the constitution, which gives the president a prevailing role in defense and foreign matters, and worked with the government in these fields while keeping it at distance for the rest.

Re-elected president two years later, Mitterrand decided once again to dissolve the opposition-dominated Assembly, but failed to win a significant majority in the new one. It was a difficult period for his various prime ministers, and he couldn’t prevent the defeat of the left in the 1993 general election or the 1995 presidential contest.

Until 1997, for the first time in 21 years the presidency (under Chirac) and the government (headed by Alain Juppe) both belonged to the Gaullist “family” for the first time in 21 years. However, it was a divided family: split by its various approaches to the European Union as well as by the conflicting ambitions of its leaders. Believing he could strengthen his authority, Chirac suddenly decided to call a general election in 1997. The outcome was a strong comeback by the left, led by Lionel Jospin’s Socialist Party. Chirac was forced to give Jospin the premiership.

While de Gaulle likely would have resigned in such a situation, Chirac decided to remain, opening a new period of cohabitation that is due to last until 2002. Unlike the first cohabitation, however, when Mitterrand never lost an opportunity to weaken his prime minister, relations between the two heads of the executive are smooth. For example, Chirac and Jospin were at pains during the Kosovo war to present a united front. They are both very popular, and the French, who are usually very skeptical as to the capabilities of the political class, appear to feel reassured by the fact that Jospin and Chirac have to share power.

The leaders of the various opposition groups, who have yet to recover from their setback in the European elections, increasingly fear that the 2001 local elections could be disastrous for them. The Gaullists stand to lose the mayoralty of Paris. Today the city hall is the target of a wild war inside the Gaullist family. Some of the “barons” of the family would like Chirac to take a hard stance against his socialist partners in government, and are very disappointed to see him continue his cordial relationship with the Socialists, leaving the left with many opportunities to win the next presidential election. Looking at the way Chirac operates, one must wonder if he has anything resembling a strategy.

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