After the emperor, le deluge

Francois Mitterrand's legacy to the left is disarray. Tony Barber on the years of hope and despair
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ACROSS Paris rise the boldmonuments of Francois Mitterrand's reign - the steel and glass pyramid at the Louvre, the four glass towers of the National Library, the futuristic Bastille opera house, the giant arch of La Defense: it is an architectural legacy more extensive than that of any ruler since Napoleon III.

As was the case with France's last emperor, however, Mitterrand's political legacy, particularly to his old comrades of the left, is likely to prove just as controversial as his idiosyncratic redesign of the capital.

The former president, who died of cancer last Monday aged 79, was eulogised by the Labour leader Tony Blair as "a source of great inspiration to many people on the left and centre left of politics". To which one can only say: in his middle age, from the 1960s to the early 1980s, perhaps, but not in his youth and not in the last years of his complex, contradiction- filled life.

Mitterrand achieved the feat of winning the presidency for the left for the first time in the Fifth Republic's history, only to leave office after 14 years with the left in its greatest disarray since the republic's birth in 1958. The presidential election victory of the Gaullist Jacques Chirac over the Socialist Lionel Jospin last May was merely the latest of many disasters which have reduced the French left to a small minority in the National Assembly and swept it from power in almost all regional administrations.

No doubt the left will eventually make a comeback, aided by the error- strewn efforts of Mr Chirac and his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe. Mr Chirac's predictable failure to keep all his campaign promises about lower taxes, lower unemployment and greater prosperity and social harmony makes it perfectly conceivable that the Socialists will once more become the largest parliamentary party after the next elections in 1998.

Equally, it is far too early to write off the left in the next presidential campaign, scheduled for 2002, especially if it can put up a youngish candidate unassociated with the Mitterrand era such as Martine Aubry, a former minister of labour.

Certainly, Mr Jospin, the new Socialist leader, has indicated that he holds the late president responsible for at least some of the left's present woes. With Mitterrand, he noted, the left had learned to govern France, introduced reforms and gained experience. "But we were also tested by power, sometimes paid the price of its temptations and - as is normal - were punished by the voters."

It was as close as he could decently come to alluding to Mitterrand's carefully cultivated image of monarchical aloofness, a cerebral detachment from adversarial politics that looked more and more like a selfish ploy intended to preserve his personal reputation as a tide of unpleasant corruption cases rose up to engulf the Socialist Party. One former Mitterrand minister was imprisoned for rigging a football match, a close aide to the president shot himself in the Elysee Palace, and the party was trapped in a web of accusations of illegal funding.

Small wonder that in the most recent parliamentary elections of March 1993 the Socialist vote collapsed by half to 18 per cent and the party won less than one-tenth of the National Assembly's 577 seats. Mr Jospin himself is untainted by scandal and performed creditably when losing to Mr Chirac last May, but he inherited a mountain of problems from Mitterrand in terms of cleaning up the Socialists' public image.

It hardly helped matters that Mitterrand, aware that his life was ebbing away and determined to influence future historians' perceptions of his career, decided to assist a biographer who was delving into his youthful political flirtations in the Thirties with the extreme right. Coupled with his wartime behaviour, when he worked for the Vichy regime (albeit only after he had first seen active service, been wounded and captured, then escaped) and then joined the Resistance, the latest details of Mitterrand's life, revealed in 1994, strengthened the public perception of a leader little troubled by humility or scruples.

It was a far cry from the heady days of Mitterrand's first presidential victory of 1981. As his first prime minister, Pierre Mauroy, recalled last week, for that success alone "men and women of the left in France will remember this man who gave them back their pride".

But Mitterrand's socialist experiment lasted barely two years before he abandoned it in favour of currency stability, high productivity, privatisation and other policies emphasising the efficient management of a free-market economy. "He carried great hopes in 1981 as someone who would change life, and then people realised that life had not changed but was even tougher at the end of his first term," said Henri Amouroux, an historian.

Even during last year's presidential campaign, the Socialists were seeking to distance themselves from his legacy. However, his fatal illness and the fact he was completing 14 years as head of state - the longest such reign since Napoleon III - made it hard for the left to break away without seeming malicious or cynical.

Mitterrand took the Socialists to unprecedented heights; that has made the subsequent failures and unpopularity all the harder to bear. Now that he is dead, the modernisation of the French left must surely gather pace.

Neal Ascherson, page 20