A generation bids farewell to Mitterrand

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French Socialists and the generation of Francois Mitterrand bade farewell to their dead leader in Paris last night in a three-hour memorial gathering at Bastille, the traditional rallying place of the left in France. By 8pm, thousands were packed into the square, standing still in pouring rain, in a mournful counterpart to the exuberant celebrations that had hailed Mitterrand's election to the presidency 14 years and eight months before.

Big portraits of Mitterrand were positioned around the square, all of them dominated by a giant picture of the ex-president. There was music - Mozart, Beethoven and the Romantics; a song from the opera singer Barbara Hendricks. There were recorded excerpts from Mitterrand's speeches, the most poignant being his final presidential New Year's message a year ago.

Crushed against each other, people were quiet and patient. Some exchanged memories of the Mitterrand era; many held a single red rose; a few held candles. At 6.30pm, the square was barely full; an hour later there was a serious public-order risk and amateur marshals tried to control the swell of people trying to emerge from the Metro into the square. Most had come on their way home from work, tired but determined.

There were no formal tributes. This was the people's farewell. The funeral today, at Jarnac, Mitterrand's birthplace in the west of France, is for family and friends only. The memorial Mass at Notre-Dame is for the political classes, for the hundreds of state visitors and for the 1,000 Parisians who can be accommodated.

Even as final arrangements for today's ceremonies were being completed, however, controversies erupted that threaten to simmer on well after the former president is buried. The treatment of cancer and a president's medical history came to public attention in ways that could have wide repercussions, including the current President, Jacques Chirac.

Mitterrand's brother, Robert, questioned the treatment and use of alternative medicine. Francois, he said, could have been saved if specialists had been brought from abroad but the French doctors refused to ask for help from foreigners.

The chief cancer specialist at a major Paris hospital indirectly backed the criticism, saying that the former president had been treated by "charlatans with magic powders" and deplored the fact that he had been advised not to take the "classical" treatment for prostate cancer. In a clear attempt to calm the debate, other family members, including Mitterrand's widow, Danielle, issued a statement saying they were entirely happy with his treatment.

A second controversy relates to the disclosure of medical records. Reports circulated yesterday claiming that Mitterrand's first presidential medical examination showed he was already suffering from cancer, and this was concealed. The first France knew about his illness was in 1993, when he was first operated on.

Had Mitterrand's condition been made public before 1988, it is highly unlikely he would have been elected to a second term. The pressure on Mr Chirac to publish results of his medical tests will now be strong.

A third controversy relates to the adulatory treatment of Mitterrand by politicians of all parties and by the media since his death. Some Gaullist politicians are said to be unhappy with the uncritical tributes.