It sounds like "The Odd Couple" rewritten around French politics: an intellectual, somewhat introspective left-wing president is rejected by an ungrateful electorate and forced to "cohabit" with an energetic right-wing prime minister, nicknamed the "Bulldozer."
After nearly three weeks of living together, their joint apartment looks different. The furniture has been rearranged and each man has tried to mark off his own inner sanctum. A sense of hostility, mingled with grudging respect, hangs in the air. Alarmist predictions that all the crockery would be smashed immediately have not been fulfilled.
As the curtain comes down on the first act of the political drama known here as "cohabitation," conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and Socialist President Francois Mitterrand are eying each other cautiously. Neither leader wants to be held responsible for a breakdown in the relationship. But each is determined to defend his constitutional prerogatives.
As far as the public is concerned, the show has been a great hit so far. Opinion polls released this week indicate a big jump in support for both Chirac and Mitterrand.
The two leaders have held three lengthy meetings in private since the narrow right-wing victory in the March 16 election for a new National Assembly. They have discussed such topics as the upsurge in terrorism, preparations for the western economic summit in Tokyo, and this weekend's devaluation of the franc. They have also sought to reach agreement on the ground rules for "cohabitation."
"You shouldn't think that the president and the prime minister are constantly attacking each other with Florentine daggers or poison," remarked Denis Baudouin, the chief government spokesman, denying reports of "a permanent squabble" between the two men.
The unprecedented power-sharing arrangement between right and left arose because of the overlapping mandates of president and National Assembly. Last month's election marked the first time since the founding of the French Fifth Republic by Gen. Charles de Gaulle that a president has lost control over the assembly and, as a consequence, his ability to dictate policy to the government.
A study of important decisions made since the election suggests that executive authority has largely shifted away from the president to the prime minister. Mitterrand, however, has established his right to be consulted on such major issues as reducing France's presence in Lebanon and devaluing the franc. He retains significant powers of veto and the ability to dissolve the assembly in addition to what is probably his most important asset -- the symbolism of the presidency itself.
In public statements, the president has sought to avoid giving the impression of complicity between left and right. He objects to the widespread use of the term "cohabitation" to describe his relationship with Chirac, preferring instead the phrase "institutional coexistence."
The maneuvering for tactical advantage was illustrated early on by a debate on how the right would implement its electoral program when it only has a two-seat majority in the assembly. When the government announced it would exploit to the full its powers of ruling by decree, thus circumventing cumbersome parliamentary procedures, Mitterrand let it be known that he would be selective in countersigning decrees. He refused, for example, to sign a decree abolishing administrative restrictions on the firing of workers, arguing that this would dismantle an important Socialist reform.
The president's gesture was widely regarded as an astute move, since it bolstered his standing in the eyes of his supporters without risking a constitutional crisis. The government can still submit the controversial legislation to the assembly in the normal way, allowing Mitterrand to argue that he was protecting the rights of parliament.
In fact, there is little evidence that "cohabitation" will lead to a return to a "parliamentary" system of the kind France knew under the Fourth Republic, when governments were made and unmade by the National Assembly. Most of the power surrendered by the president has gone not to parliament, but to the prime minister.
In forming his government, Chirac took great care to concentrate authority in the hands of a few trusted associates.
The inner circle of the Cabinet is made up of "second generation" Gaullists. With some notable exceptions, such as Jacques Chaban-Delmas who has become president of the assembly, de Gaulle's proteges no longer occupy positions of influence. The key members of the French government, including Chirac himself, made their early careers under Georges Pompidou, a technocrat who succeeded de Gaulle as president in 1969.
The Pompidou years are now remembered as a period of economic expansion and modernization. Unlike de Gaulle, who was preoccupied with the problem of French independence, Pompidou was primarily obsessed with the need to update France's aging industrial infrastructure.
Pompidou's emphasis on economic progress and social conservatism has been taken up by the Chirac government. Pragmatism, and making French industry more competitive, have become the watchwords.
In addition to Chirac, who earned his "Bulldozer" nickname from Pompidou, seven senior ministers are products of the Pompidou era, including Finance Minister Edouard Balladur.
The return of the "Pompidoliens" has been accompanied by the effective eclipse of former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who had been hoping to play an important role in the government. But his claims to the Finance Ministry were overlooked in favor of Balladur. A possible consolation prize, president of the assembly, went to Chaban-Delmas.