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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Training Officer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Training Officer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Specialist - Document Management

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A leading provider of document ...

Recruitment Genius: Legal Secretary

£17000 - £17800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to work ...

Recruitment Genius: Ad Ops Manager - Up to £55K + great benefits

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a digital speci...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent