Ailing Mitterrand determined to serve out term

Francois Mitterrand celebrated his 78th birthday, the last before his presidential mandate ends in May, with a family dinner at the Elysee Palace yesterday.

The French President's official functions have been reduced in the past few weeks to allow him to have chemotherapy for prostate cancer. Yesterday he presided over the weekly cabinet meeting in the morning and presented Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour in the afternoon.

Last July, Mr Mitterrand underwent a second operation in just under two years for his condition. Since then, rumours have abounded.

One of the most recent was that Rene Monory, who as president of the Senate would have to take over the reins of state as interim president in the event of serious illness or a resignation, was asked this month to stand by because surgeons were considering a third operation.

Mr Mitterrand, whose dinner with his family also marked the 50th anniversary tomorrow of his marriage to Danielle, has conceded the gravity of his condition while expressing determination to serve out his second seven- year mandate to the end.

One week this month, Mr Mitterrand had only two official engagements. In rare public appearances, he has looked wan and tired.

His flair for political intrigue seems to have diminished sharply. While the conservative government coalition, particularly the dominant Gaullist RPR party, indulged in a bitter dispute in the run-up to the presidential elections, mainly a battle between Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, and Jacques Chirac, the RPR president, Mr Mitterrand said only that he was more 'interested than amused' by the quarrel.

Previously, the President, known for what the French call phrases assassines, would have used his talents to the full to increase his conservative rivals' discomfort.

Mr Mitterrand's past few weeks have been marred by controversy over his role in the Second World War, when he worked for the Vichy regime, before he joined the Resistance. Much of the detail came from Mr Mitterrand himself, who gave material to a historian writing about his youth.

On his health, one friend who sees the President regularly, said that while his condition was serious, 'it is often will-power that wins out in such cases. He still has all his faculties and he has proved his determination time and again.'

(Photograph omitted)