For what it’s worth for the future: cohabitation is a combat sport, and I can testify here to the way in which the first of these was conducted, in 1986, starting from three particular moments.

First of all, we must remember that at that time we had no precedent, that the Constitution did not specify the conditions under which the President of the Republic could exercise his prerogatives, and that we knew that the future Prime Minister Jacques Chirac had no other intention than to make life impossible for François Mitterrand, to prevent him from exercising any responsibility, and to push him to resign. Even if the reserved domain is not defined as such in the Constitution, and the President’s pre-eminence in the conduct of Foreign Affairs and Defense was not disputed by anyone, the devil is in the details. And these principles soon had to be confronted with reality:

In foreign policy: as soon as the new government took office in March 1986, the question arose as to who would represent France at international meetings. The test came a few days after the new government took office, when the Sherpas met to prepare for the G7 summit in Tokyo the following May. Had the Prime Minister’s representative attended this meeting, it would have become clear to our major partners that the Prime Minister would be involved in determining foreign policy, or even have control over it. However, if this meeting had taken place in the host country, i.e. Japan, it would have been impossible to prevent the Prime Minister from sending a representative. To avoid this, well before the elections, we had obtained from our Japanese partners that the sherpa meeting should take place in Paris, and that this meeting should be held not at the Japanese embassy in Paris, but in a presidential chateau, that of Rambouillet. The Prime Minister was told that I would be the only representative of France, and that the château would only be open to those whom the President wished to welcome there. The Prime Minister insisted. Strongly. To no avail. It thus became clear to the diplomatic world that the President of the Republic retained control of foreign policy. Since then, this has never been called into question.

Domestic policy: in principle, the President has no say. And yet, he does have prerogatives, if he is willing to exercise them. In June 1986, the Prime Minister had Parliament pass a series of enabling laws allowing him to take very important decisions by ordinance. In particular, to privatize a number of companies. Once these laws had been passed, the Prime Minister asked the President to sign the ordinances. François Mitterrand felt that the Constitution allowed him to refuse to sign them, and he asked the Prime Minister to use the law to decide on the privatization of companies nationalized in 1945. The Prime Minister considered this attitude unconstitutional and, in a dramatic phone call I witnessed on the evening of July 14, 1986, insinuated that this was an act of treason that could justify the President’s impeachment and new presidential elections. We spent that night at the Palais, expecting to see troops arrive to arrest the President. They didn’t, and the Prime Minister gave in.

Defense: at around the same time, the Minister of Defense, the Prime Minister and the Chief of Staff proposed to the President that he convene a Defense Council to decide whether to make nuclear weapons, previously reserved for the navy and air force, available to the army. The Council met. François Mitterrand explained, with impeccable precision, that nuclear weapons should remain weapons of deterrence, the presence of which on the battlefield was unthinkable. Alone against all, he imposed this point of view. His pre-eminence in defining defense policy was never again challenged.

Today, of course, the situation is totally different, and we can imagine these principles being called into question. All the same, the above explains why any cohabitation demands authority, competence, reflection and absolute calm from the President of the Republic. The stability of our institutions depends on it.

Image: French President François Mitterrand (Socialist Party) and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac (Rally for the Republic) at the Elysée Palace, December 17, 1986. ALEXIS DUCLOS / GAMMA-RAPHO