Conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac went on nationwide television tonight to accuse Socialist President Francois Mitterrand of opposing the "clearly expressed will of the nation" by resisting the government's plans for sweeping denationalization of state-owned companies.
But Chirac appeared to sidestep a constitutional trial of strength with Mitterrand, who earlier in the day refused to sign a decree authorizing the government to sell off 65 leading companies. Chirac announced that he would submit the privatization plans to the National Assembly, where his right-wing coalition has a slim three-seat majority.
French commentators have depicted the clash between Mitterrand and Chirac as a hitch in the power-sharing arrangement known as "cohabitation" under which France has been governed since a right-wing election victory on March 16. It marked the first major disagreement between the two men over the extent of their constitutional powers.
Tonight's 12-minute broadcast was the second time in two days that a French leader has gone on television to argue his case. Speaking from the prime minister's office in what was billed as a formal "government statement," Chirac made clear that he would hold Mitterrand responsible for any delay in France's economic recovery.
Mitterrand used a television interview on July 14, France's national day, to announce that he would reject the denationalization decree. He argued that the legislation failed to include sufficient guarantees against important national assets falling into "foreign hands."
Mitterrand reiterated his refusal to ratify the government decree when it was presented to him for signature by Chirac at a tense Cabinet meeting today. The president's spokeswoman quoted him as saying that it was up to Parliament to settle the controversy.
The immediate effect of Mitterrand's refusal to sign the decree will be to delay implementation of the government's entire legislative program by several months. According to a spokesman, Chirac told the Cabinet he would submit new legislation on privatization to a Cabinet meeting next week. It will then be debated by Parliament.
In tonight's broadcast, his first such intervention since he became prime minister, Chirac said the government could not take responsibility for jeopardizing France's "economic recovery" by provoking a "political crisis."
In the harshest words he has used about Mitterrand in public since the election, Chirac said the president was "opposing the will of a majority of French people that was clearly expressed during the last elections."
Chirac went to some lengths to reject Mitterrand's argument that companies slated for denationalization could end up in foreign hands. He said that the government had the power to prevent any sale of state-owned assets to foreigners.