Nobody said it was going to be easy. For the first six weeks of their cohabitation, President Jacques Chirac and the Prime Minister, Mr Lionel Jospin, managed to contain their rivalry, but the semblance of cordiality crumbled yesterday with a showdown at the weekly cabinet meeting and an exchange of verbal volleys by their respective spokeswomen.
It all started with Mr Chirac's televised interview on Bastille Day in which he criticised virtually everything the Jospin government has undertaken. Talk of restoring government controls on firing workers was old-fashioned, Mr Chirac said. Plans to reverse the privatisation of state-owned companies were ill-founded; and the government appeared not to have reflected adequately before deciding to shut down the Superphenix fast breeder reactor. Worst of all, the president said, Mr Jospin's intention of granting legal residence to tens of thousands of sans-papiers (illegals) would encourage racism, xenophobia and extremism.
It was too much for Mr Jospin, who yesterday morning gave Mr Chirac a dressing down in the weekly council of ministers meeting. In a two-sentence summary, Ms Catherine Trautmann, the government spokeswoman, said that "following the statements by the President of the Republic on July 14th, the Prime Minister recalled in the Council of Ministers the prerogatives bestowed upon the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister by virtue of the constitution."
Mr Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Socialist Economics Minister, rubbed salt in the wound by telling journalists that for cohabitation to be constructive, "each has to do the job he's supposed to".
The Elysee Palace fired back immediately. "The president reiterated his wish for a constructive cohabitation," his spokeswoman, Ms Catherine Colonna, said. "And, in the same spirit, because it is his duty, the President will always tell the French people . . . what he thinks of the important questions which concern the future of France."
Mr Jospin based his lecture to the President on articles 5 and 20 of the constitution, which the two men interpret very differently. Article 5 gives the president responsibility for protecting the constitution, the continuity of the state, national independence and observance of treaties, whereas article 20 states clearly that "the government shall determine and conduct the policy of the nation".
When Mr Chirac cohabited with the late President Mitterrand 11 years ago, he accused Mr Mitterrand of "opposing the clearly expressed will of the majority of Frenchmen". Now Mr Jospin is accusing Mr Chirac of exactly the same thing. The Socialists say Mr Chirac is behaving like a partisan politician and clinging to the failed policies of the former administration.
The real problem, commentators have suggested, is that Messrs Chirac and Jospin are already competing for the 2002 presidential election.