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Constitutional showdown in France?

THE recurrent French crises after the Socialist loss in the legislative elections last March should surprise no one. Still, what warrants greater understanding is that a major constitutional test - if not showdown - may be looming for France. Ever since the French Revolution of 1789, a struggle has existed between the executive and legislative powers. The left has aimed at limiting the executive branch's power - king, emperor, president. Throughout the 19th century, this conflict produced a series of political crises and revolutions. In this fight, the conservative center of influence - the executive - frequently exercised its right to dissolve the legislature and call for new elections. Temperamentally insensitive to and chronically prone to misjudging the country's mood, the conservatives lost in the long run.

In May 1877, after a long political crisis, the president of the Third Republic became a figurehead, transforming France into a true parliamentary democracy. After World War II, the French re-created the most successful political arrangement in their recent history, but the instability inherent in parliamentary regimes left the Fourth Republic unable to cope with the breakup of the French Empire, the world's second largest. The result: Charles de Gaulle's return in 1958, along with the Fifth Republic.

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Unlike previous French regimes - boasting either powerful executives or strong legislatures - de Gaulle's Republic established both a powerful president and a strong prime minister. Ever since the Fifth Republic's foundation, this unique feature has prompted informed observers to predict a clash between the two which would alter the regime. As long as the same party held both posts, the arrangement functioned smoothly. But now that conservatives control Parliament, with a conservative prime minister, while socialist Mitterrand retains the presidency, a showdown appears imminent.

Prime Minister Jacques Chirac has been spoiling for a fight ever since he took over. Apparently aiming at a French ``Reagan Revolution,'' he abolished Socialist measures increasing taxes on the wealthy, and has pushed pell-mell for the privatization of government-controlled economic sectors.

While even the Socialists had backed away from their initial desire to soak the rich, and the French economy could certainly benefit from less government interference, Mr. Chirac's measures appear extreme. Furthermore, Chirac has been accused of neglecting the country's social problems. Above all, his governing style has irritated large sections of the French populace. Considering how President Mitterrand's legendary aloofness turns people off, Chirac's alienation of politically influential sectors is no mean feat.

In the railway workers' strike, Chirac sought popular support by arguing that any raises beyond the ones offered by the government would reignite inflation and cause the immediate loss of 500,000 to 600,000 jobs.

Although Chirac has backed down on the merit-pay aspect, a government plan that touched off the strike, his rhetoric and firm stance on the pay increases have convinced observers that he views his test with the railway workers as the equivalent of Margaret Thatcher's contest with the miners and Ronald Reagan's fight with the air traffic controllers. In both instances, the victory over entrenched unions allowed the government to pursue its free-enterprise economic ideals. If the labor struggle reaches an impasse, Chirac is prepared to resign, use his majority to block formation of a new Cabinet, and force Mr. Mitterrand to call early elections. Polls indicate a repeat of the rightist win last March if new elections are held.

But the on-again, off-again tradition of worker struggle and solidarity has stronger roots in France than it does in Britain or the United States. Even though Chirac yielded to the students in December, his personal popularity did not increase; despite important concessions to the railway workers, the strike escalated. Even if the railway issue is somehow settled for good, worker unrest will increase. The spontaneity of the rail strike - which has left the unions in the dust - bodes ill for the prime minister. In addition, the French Communist Party has been given a new issue which it hopes will restore it to the limelight. Clearly the Socialists are biding their time. Despite the reversal of the centers of influence of right and left, new elections could hold unpleasant surprises for the right, as they often have in the past.

In January, Mr. Mitterrand received a delegation of striking railway workers, provoking Chirac's ire. Was this incident the beginning of the long-predicted constitutional struggle that will alter the Fifth Republic's political structure?

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Spencer Di Scala is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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