[FOUNTAIN]The French showed how coalitions fail

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[FOUNTAIN]The French showed how coalitions fail

In the spring of 2002, the heads of France and Germany met in Paris. It was a summit meeting between two nations, but three heads of states got together. French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin received German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder together. Having been rivals in the presidential election, Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin snarled at each other on every issue, and Mr. Schroeder, the guest, had struggled to mend the quarrel.
Such scenes occurred throughout France’s third coalition government. France always sent two representatives to the European Union summit meeting ― one a leftist, the other a rightist. No doubt this made other heads of state feel awkward.
Outside France, it is often believed that the country has a semi-presidential form of government, in which the president is in charge of diplomacy and defense while the prime minister is responsible for domestic affairs and finance. But that is not the case at all. Depending on the election results, the center of power might shift to the president or the prime minister, but the power is hardly divided. The president has the power when the governing party is dominant, and the power moves to the prime minister if the opposition is in the majority.
Mr. Jospin never conceded authority over diplomacy and defense to Mr. Chirac. This was only natural. The foreign and defense ministers were on the prime minister’s side, so to whom would they likely report first? The president was only a figurehead. When he was himself prime minister, Mr. Chirac completely shunned President Francois Mitterrand. To express his anger over being ignored by the rightist prime minister and the cabinet, Mr. Mitterrand had no other means but to refuse to take the traditional cabinet photo.
In contrast, when the governing party is dominant, the prime minister becomes nominal. That situation is not much different from Korea’s now. As we can see from the French examples, the coalition form of government has been criticized for having more bad effects, in wasting national strength in collisions between the president and prime minister, than benefits, from the system of checks and balances. France shortened its presidential term from seven years to five, matching the term of the president with those of the assemblymen, to prevent ineffective coalitions.
Right after Roh Moo-hyun was elected president, he expressed his attachment to the French-style semi-presidential system. His coalition proposal was based on his admiration for the French system. It is hard to understand why he clings to a system that the French themselves have given up, having recognized it as a failure.


by Lee Hoon-beom

The writer is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s weekend news team.
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