A long dying ends with a vicious irony

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The Independent Online


Francois Mitterrand died as he had lived: with supreme timing and vicious political irony. At 11am, foreign journalists were assembled at the Elysee Palace for the solemn occasion of Jacques Chirac's New Year press conference. Instead of his personal message for the coming year, President Chirac found himself conveying the news of his predecessor's demise. His greetings were postponed for a week; the journalists, with a proper sense of priorities, rushed to the phones.

For Mitterrand's death yesterday, eight months and a day after leaving office, took France by surprise, if only because it was so long in coming. He died at 8.30am in the apartment that served as his office under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Hundreds of people gathered outside the building in Avenue Frederic Le Play after the news was announced, some to pay their respects, some to watch celebrities come and go. By early evening, with the lights of television cameras ranged on a huge derrick and the illumination of the Eiffel Tower, the scene resembled a film set.

Mitterrand was working on a new book: not his memoirs - he had spurned such cliches of past leaders - but a volume of history that was the product of his other life, as stylish writer and versatile intellectual.

Mortality, though, had accompanied Mitterrand for so many months that his dying had come to seem a permanent state. Few national leaders can have expressed themselves so publicly about their death or made such elaborate preparations for their posthumous image. Ever since the first reports that he was suffering from cancer of the prostate, almost two years before he completed his 14 years as President, his every public utterance seemed stamped with the knowledge of his, as it transpired, not so imminent demise.

He seemed to withdraw consciously from the routine of the presidency, taking a loftier, more detached view of himself and his role. His withdrawal was all the easier because the National Assembly was now (1993) in the hands of the right, and because the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, ran the government with just the right amount of autonomy and "correct" deference to the President.

Details of Mitterrand's illness and his treatment became widely known and published - suspended awkwardly between France's tight laws on personal privacy and the political issue that a leader's health inevitably becomes. Magazine readers knew that he had changed doctors, that a new (and very expensive) treatment by a Swiss doctor had made the pain bearable, allowing him to work on, that he had dabbled in alternative medicine.

In interviews, he expatiated on his attitude to death. He paraded a highly intellectual agnosticism, logically not able to believe in a God but emotionally unable to embrace atheism.

He appeared on French television's prestigious books programme in April, to be interviewed by the doyen of presenters, Bernard Pivot, about his recent book, a series of "conversations" with the anti-Nazi campaigner Elie Wiesel. With quivering hands and a facial pallor like a death mask that shocked viewers, he mused on matters of life and death.

Asked then for his favourite word, Mitterrand said: "Life". Asked what he would like God to say to him when he met him, he said: "If there is a God ... I would like him to say 'So, now you know' - and I hope he would say 'Welcome'."

One point of the book collaboration with Elie Wiesel, though, and a reason perhaps why he agreed to appear on television despite his weakness and pain, was to "set the record straight", about his relations with the Vichy regime and his continued association, if not friendship, with some of its leading players. Truculently, Mitterrand denied political sympathy with Vichy, but justified his long association with its former police chief, Rene Bousquet, insisting that he knew little of his past.

Added to the persistent whiffs of corruption surrounding his power in its latter years and the suicides in his retinue, the Vichy episode seemed to fit a pattern of dubious shifts in personal loyalty and questionable moral standards which suggested that, while possessing a rare intellectual breadth and quickness of mind, he was not an honest man. He gravitated towards power; he enjoyed the company of the great and the rich, and he liked the availability of money and honours without wanting to bear the responsibility for them.

It is easy to see how the so-called affaires - convoluted deals hovering between political patronage and overt corruption - flourished under his presidency. It is equally easy to see how those without his facility in dealing with the rich and powerful but with a more basic sense of honesty - like his one-time prime minister, Pierre Beregovoy, who chose May Day 1993 to commit suicide - could find themselves trapped in a world whose rules were not theirs.

Failing to observe the natural border-line between the public and the private is a recurrent feature of Mitterrand's life and career. Assisted by France's privacy laws, he concealed not only a mistress and an illegitimate daughter, but also that they were handsomely housed and supported by public money. The emergence of the daughter, Mazarine, into the public eye in the past year - through snatched, and then posed, pictures in Paris Match - was regarded cynically by many as a Mitterrand ploy, designed to smooth her passage after his death. Equally, it could have reflected the naive wish, once more, to set the record straight.

In his last weeks of office and the time that remained to him in retirement, Mitterrand was seen around his familiar haunts on the Left Bank, and made fleeting visits abroad, and in France, that looked like farewells. He revisited Venice, Brittany and his family's annual Whit and August gatherings, - and he spent Christmas, with his family and Mazarine, at Aswan in Egypt.

Until recent months, there was an unspoken assumption that Mitterrand was angling for a place in the Pantheon, the last resting place of France's most select, from revolutionaries to academics.

Over the summer, however, it became known that he had bought - for a token sum - a burial plot in his beloved region of Morvan, on the historic site where Vercingetorix is said to have rallied the Gauls against the Romans.

The purchase is still controversial. But the dispute may turn out to be another of the former president's tricks on his fellow-countrymen. After a private funeral on Thursday, Francois Mitterrand is to be buried in the family grave at Jarnac, in Charente in western France - where he was born.

A day of national mourning has been declared for Thursday, and a special memorial mass has been decreed for the same day at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. By yesterday evening, however, only the southern city of Montpellier, which has a loyal Mitterrandist mayor, had its flags flying at half-mast.