Page last updated at 15:12 GMT, Tuesday, 31 May 2005 16:12 UK

Analysis: France blows a fuse

By Henri Astier
BBC News

Jacques Chirac's decision to change his prime minister is the latest use of a well-tried escape route open to French presidents in trouble.

French President Jacques Chirac with departing Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Rafarrin
French presidents traditionally push their PMs in times of crisis
The prime minister is often described as a "fuse", ready to blow up when the tension between the head of state and his people gets too strong.

Now is such a time, following the decisive rejection of the European Union constitution on which Mr Chirac had staked his prestige.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's time is up. Whether his replacement by Dominique de Villepin will be enough to revive the presidency is open to question.

The role of the prime minister as a shield to the head of state is built into France's peculiar constitution, which sets up a double-headed executive.

The president is directly elected and stands as the supreme embodiment of the nation, flanked by a prime minister who derives his or her authority from parliament.

In theory, prime ministers are only responsible before MPs and presidents cannot sack them at will.

But practice has been different. General Charles De Gaulle - the constitution's founding father and the first president of the Fifth Republic - was determined to give his office absolute supremacy.

New French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin
Mr De Villepin led the French charge against US policy on Iraq
Before naming his prime ministers, he demanded that they write in advance a letter of resignation, to be used whenever politically convenient.

Since then many heads of governments have come and gone, not after losing the confidence of the assembly but because of differences with their presidential masters.

This was the case for Jacques Chaban-Delmas in 1972 and a young Jacques Chirac in 1976, who fell out with presidents Georges Pompidou and Valery Giscard d'Estaing respectively.

The most adept practitioner of the strategic ministerial sacking was Francois Mitterrand - the longest serving president under the current constitution.

Beset by scandals in the early 1990s, he dismissed two prime ministers - Michel Rocard and Edith Cresson - in less than a year.

Chirac in trouble

President Chirac, by contrast, has so far been loath to treat his prime ministers as whipping boys.

One reason is that for five years after his centre-right supporters lost the 1997 election he had to "co-habit" with a Socialist prime minister - and at such times the parliamentary aspect of the constitution reasserts itself.

French President Charles de Gaulle, 1970
Charles de Gaulle secured the presidency at the centre of power
But Mr Chirac has also been reluctant to sacrifice unpopular prime ministers who were at his mercy - notably Alain Juppe in the mid-1990s and, until now, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

The reason could be what analysts describe as his deep sense of loyalty.

The fact that he has had to sack Mr Raffarin is a sign of the dire situation the president faces.

Some commentators have noted that the prime minister's function as a lightning rod flies in the face of a central tenet of democracy - that power and responsibility should go hand in hand.

As political writer Jean-Francois Revel drily observed in 1992: "In France, the person who is held responsible is not the one who gives order - it is the one who receives them."

The French are urging us to shed our rigid habits, to move the country forward without delay
Nicholas Sarkozy
UMP party leader
But most French people accept this peculiar arrangement - not least Mr Raffarin himself.

"Because I am a fuse: I protect the president," he once acknowledged.

"The institutions are well designed. It is normal that a prime minister should be on the front line."

But it is debatable whether a mere change of staff will help restore confidence in Mr Chirac and his centre-right UMP party.

Mr de Villepin is regarded as much of a Chirac creature as Mr Raffarin was.

After Sunday's political earthquake, Mr de Villepin's leading rival, UMP chief Nicolas Sarkozy, called for radical moves to regenerate a nation beset by doubt and crippled by high unemployment.

"The French are urging us to shed our rigid habits, to move the country forward without delay," he said.

Mr de Villepin, however, is more likely to continue on his predecessor's prudent path of gradual reforms.

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