The hidden election
All eyes in France may be on the presidential vote, but how much actual power the winner will wield depends on the results of an entirely different election a month later. Hugh Schofield reports.
Under the country's peculiar constitution a president may enjoy the quasi-monarchical status of a Charles de Gaulle and a Francois Mitterrand in his prime, or he can be reduced to the ineffectual symbol of sovereignty that Jacques Chirac has been for the last five years.
It all hangs on the parliament, or National Assembly, which is to be renewed in a two-round vote on 9 and 16 June.
With a majority in the Assembly that supports the president, he can appoint a prime minister and cabinet of his own liking and then use his powers to shape policy and arbitrate on the country's future.
However with a parliament dominated by his opponents, a president's powers are circumscribed. Then the country enters a period of "cohabitation" in which prime minister and president are of different political stripes, with all the confusion that inevitably entails.
There have been three periods of "cohabitation" since De Gaulle introduced the Fifth Republic in 1958.
These were 1986-1988, when Chirac was prime minister under the Socialist Mitterrand; 1993-1995, when Edouard Balladur was prime minister, also under Mitterrand; and from 1997 to the present, when the Socialist Lionel Jospin has been prime minister under Chirac, of the conservative RPR.
The reason for the uncertainty is that even though de Gaulle wanted a powerful presidency to supersede the squabbling of the postwar political parties, his constitution left day-to-day government in the hands of the prime minister's cabinet.
The president presides at cabinet meetings, and has the power to dismiss the prime minister, but in practice his hands are tied if the prime minister has the support of the National Assembly, and social and economic policies will then be determined by the president's opponents.
By convention, though, the president retains his pre-eminence in foreign affairs and defence — which is why at recent European summit meetings Chirac has led the French delegation with a somewhat subdued Jospin in tow.
There is little to suggest that the French public feels strongly against cohabitation, but many politicians and foreign observers believe it is an embarrassing arrangement that hobbles reform and muffles France's voice abroad.
In 2001 changes were brought in, intended to make future periods of dual-executive government less likely.
The presidential term was reduced from seven years to five — the same as the Assembly's — and as this year's presidential and parliamentary votes more or less coincide, the hope is that whoever is elected president will have the momentum to ensure a winning vote for his camp in parliament.
Indeed, already manoeuvres are underway among supporters of Chirac and Jospin — who are the two frontrunners for the presidency — to maximise their chances in the June National Assembly poll.
However it is far from certain that a new period of cohabitation will not be the outcome of the two elections.