De Gaulle, in 1958, gave France a constitution that left the experts puzzled. It was a hybrid: part presidential, since the chief executive, with wide powers, is elected by universal suffrage and cannot be turned out by Parliament; and part parliamentary, since the president has to appoint a prime minister supported (or at least not opposed by) a majority of the National Assembly. The two questions that this arrangement raised were, first, whether it would outlive General De Gaulle, for whom it seemed tailor-made—his very mixed experience as head of the government in 1944 and 1945 had taught him that he needed a capable intermediary in the form of a prime minister who would handle both the details of policy and the politics of dealing with parties and Parliament. Secondly, how would the relationship between the president and the prime minister evolve if the constitution survived the general’s departure?
The first question was answered at last when François Mitterrand was elected in 1981. Mitterrand had denounced the constitution as dictatorial and called the regime a “permanent coup d’état.” By accommodating himself (these were his words) to the very provisions he had attacked he made it possible for the Fifth Republic to win its biggest test so far—that of l’alternance, the coming to power of a left-wing majority after twenty-three years of government by the right.
The relation between the president and the prime minister did not become a major question so long as there was a clear majority in the National Assembly supporting the president. Paradoxically, under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, it is when all the conditions exist for a smooth parliamentary system—a stable majority and a cabinet emanating from it—that the regime is at its most presidential. In such circumstances, the prime minister is little more than the president’s chief of staff, and the president can make all the important decisions, especially to choose and to fire the prime minister as he sees fit. Since these conditions prevailed between 1959 and 1986, the predominance of the president over the prime minister became generally accepted as an essential feature of the Fifth Republic.
It is precisely because all powers seemed concentrated in the seven-year presidency that so many prime ministers have developed presidential ambitions—none more than Jacques Chirac, the young protégé of Georges Pompidou who, when his patron died, helped Giscard d’Estaing to become president (instead of the Gaullist candidate Jacques Chaban-Delmas, whom Pompidou had dismissed and whom Chirac disliked). Chirac became Giscard’s first prime minister in 1976, and he found the reward bitter since Giscard turned out to be a most intrusive and domineering boss. In the presidential election of 1981, he was instrumental in getting Giscard defeated. Giscard’s elimination insured the triumph of Mitterrand and the Socialists; but it also made Chirac, already the undisputed leader of the Gaullist party since the fall of 1974 and mayor of Paris (elected against Giscard’s candidate …