France falls back in love with 'cold and cynical' Mitterrand

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The Independent Online

An unknown scene from Dallas appeared on French television screens last night. The role of J R Ewing was acted by the late President François Mitterrand. His long-hidden illegitimate daughter, Mazarine, played Sue Ellen.

"So JR, you have betrayed me," said Mazarine-Sue Ellen . "That's all I ever do," responded Mitterrand-JR.

The scene, taken from a presidential home movie from the late 1980s, demonstrated a playful and human side to Mitterrand rarely glimpsed in his lifetime.

When he died, 10 years ago tomorrow, France's only recent left-wing head of state was seen, like J R Ewing in Dallas, as a serial betrayer. Even many on the left saw him as a fascinating but cold and cynical man, whose 14 years in office would be remembered for lies, scandals and economic decline.

Ten years on, France is soaking in a warm bath of Mitterrand nostalgia. Scores of books, and a series of television documentaries, have set out to restore his reputation as a European visionary and a political giant, comparable to Charles de Gaulle.

An opinion poll published this week chose Mitterrand ahead of De Gaulle as the best head of state of the fifth republic, which came into being in 1958. Two other polls put Mitterrand just behind De Gaulle and embarrassingly far ahead of President Jacques Chirac. There was even a call from the Socialist Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, for Mitterrand's remains to be moved to the Pantheon in Paris, the last resting place of France's official heroes.

So what has happened to restore his reputation over the past 10 years? Nothing very much. François Mitterrand came to power in 1981, promising to create a fairer, more democratic and more humane France. By the time he retired in 1995, he was associated with high unemployment, financial scandals, obsessive personal secrecy, illegal phone-taps, lies about his health, lies about his illegitimate daughter, lies about the cynical state terrorism of the attack on the Rainbow Warrior in 1985, lies about his Vichy past and lies about his friendship, until the 1980s, with the former Vichy police chief.

On the positive side, Mitterrand abolished the death penalty in France, decentralised (up to a point) the state and helped to create the European single market and the euro.

Above all, he established France as a "normal" democracy, with alternating governments. The fifth republic had been dominated politically, and suffocated socially, by the right until Mitterrand won power. His greatest legacy was a functioning and electable centre-left in the form of the Parti Socialiste, which he created in 1971.

The wave of Mitterrandolatry in recent weeks is partly a reasonable attempt to give a more balanced view of his record. But it is also rooted in nostalgia for a lost epoch, in the 1980s, when France seemed to dominate a 10- or 12-nation Europe and appeared confident about its political and spiritual importance in the world.

So the new Mitterrand boom is partly a statement of profound disappointment with the Chirac era.

Mitterrand's great but unsuccessful rival on the left, Michel Rocard, attempts to row against the tide. In a book of interviews (Si la Gauche savait with Georges-Marc Benamou, Robert Laffont, €20) he says Mitterrand is responsible for many of France's contemporary problems.

"His absence of economic vision cost us dearly. I cannot forgive him the mess in our public finances which began in 1982-83. Three devaluations and the absurd cost of 100 per cent nationalisations forced us to freeze prices and salaries ... under a Socialist government."

The anniversary of Mitterrand's death has also provoked a new flurry of interest in Mazarine Pingeot, now 31. For the first time, she has agreed to reveal intimate details of her hidden life, from the age of seven to 20, while her father was president.

In the documentary shown last night, produced by her boyfriend, Mohammed Ulad, she recalled her amateur theatricals with her father (who apparently never missed an episode of Dallas). She also recalled her schoolfriends refused to believe she was Mitterrand's daughter until she asked some of them to come to his weekend retreat, where the president helped them with their homework.