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Danielle Mitterrand: First lady of France and outspoken human-rights activist


As the wife of President François Mitterrand, Danielle Mitterrand was France's first lady for 14 years, but she was no ordinary première dame – indeed she hated the term and immediately broke the mould.

Having been a teenage member of the Resistance, she went on to become an outspoken activist for human rights around the world from her private office in the Elysée, the presidential palace. Her husband was a socialist but she ventured far left of his policies, indeed often opposing them, befriending the likes of Fidel Castro, the balaclava-clad Mexican Zapatista guerrilla leader Subcomandante Marcos and the Dalai Lama.

Her militancy won her enemies, too, but they were mostly dictators. In July 1992 she narrowly survived a massive car bomb in Iraqi Kurdistan on her way to Halabja, where 5,000 Kurds had died in a chemical bombing attack ordered by Saddam Hussein in 1988. Seven Kurds in her convoy were killed and 17 wounded and there was little doubt Saddam had asked his security forces to rid him of this troublesome first lady.

She supported a free Tibet, Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador, the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq, the Polisario Front in Morocco and the indigenous peoples of South America. She fought the death penalty wherever it existed – not least in the United States – and was passionately involved in humanitarian and ecological issues in developing countries, notably through France-Libertés, her non-profit human rights foundation. One of its outstanding campaigns was, and remains, to bring potable water to everyone on the planet.

From their earliest years together, Danielle had nudged François Mitterrand, brought up as a Catholic conservative, towards the Left, and he often said that Danou, as he nicknamed her, was "my left-wing conscience." It is hard to imagine Michelle Obama or Samantha Cameron defending causes that could jeopardise their husbands' very political survival. But from their earliest days together, the Mitterrands had a deal under which she could remain a militant leftist idealist while he would concentrate on realpolitik. Her militancy on foreign issues made her, in the words of a writer in Le Monde this week, "the [French] ambassadors' nightmare, the bête noire of the Quai d'Orsay [the foreign ministry], a hell paved with good intentions for the palace advisers."

She said recently, "I wasn't a bénie oui-oui [an old colonial French expression for someone who always said yes to the authorities], I was a counter-power." She had also said: "I'm an agnostic. I doubt."

Long before they were in the Elysée, the couple made another arrangement, one which some Britons might call "typically French." François, a serial philanderer from his youth, would be free to have his mistresses and Danielle her intellectual freedom in return for her maintaining the illusion of a conventional marriage. It emerged years later that she was well aware that he had had an illegimate child, Mazarine, in 1974, although that remained secret until 1994. "It was neither a surprise, nor a drama," she said. After being elected president in 1981, her husband kept his mistress and secret daughter in a home a stone's throw from the Elysée.

After his death from cancer in 1996, Danielle won praise from most French for inviting Mazarine to stand between her own two sons at the funeral. And she was rarely seen in public thereafter without a gold pennant, featuring oak and olive motifs, which she wore in her husband's memory.

Danielle Emilienne Isabelle Gouze was born in 1924 in Verdun-Sur-Meuse in North-eastern France, where the town and its population remained scarred by the ravages, in 1916, of one of the bloodiest battles of the Great War. She was 15 when the Nazis occupied most of France in 1940. Her father Antoine and mother Renée were schoolteachers, Antoine later to become a headmaster. Both were militants of the SFIO, the French section of the Workers' International, influenced by the devastation of the Great War. The influence would filter down to their children. Antoine was kicked out of his job by the collaborationist Vichy government for refusing to tell them which of his teachers and pupils were Jewish.

Danielle soon became complicit in helping her parents aid the Resistance by hiding maquis fighters. Once she had taken her baccalauréat in 1941, she became a "liaison officer", moving messages and often fighters from safe house to safe house. (She would later become one of the youngest people to be awarded the Medal of the Resistance.)

During that time, via her elder sister Madeleine (later to become a film producer under the name Christine Gouze-Rénal), Danielle met, in a Paris brasserie, a resistance fighter known as Capitaine Morland. Her job was to help him dodge the Gestapo and get to Burgundy. On the train trip, although he was eight years her senior, she got into the part and fooled the Gestapo into thinking they were lovers. They soon were – Morland's real name being François Mitterrand. He described her at the time as "a pretty girl whose admirable eyes of a cat remain fixed on a the far beyond." They were married in the Saint-Séverin church in Paris in October 1944, two months after the city was liberated.

Their first child, Pascal, died at the age of 10 weeks, which she later said was the worst tragedy of her life. They went on to have two other sons, Jean-Christophe and Gilbert, before François held the posts of Minister of Overseas France, Minister of the Interior, Minister of Justice and, in 1981, President. She remained first lady until cancer forced him to step down in 1995.

She was admitted to the Georges Pompidou Hospital in Paris last Friday, suffering from fatigue and respiratory problems, from which she died.

Danielle Emilienne Isabelle Gouze, Resistance member, human-rights activist and former first lady of France; born Verdun-sur-Meuse, France 29 October 1924; married 1944 François Mitterrand (two sons, and one son deceased); died Paris 22 November 2011.