Mr Mitterrand asked why and the minister explained: 'Because it will be your last as President.'
'I hadn't thought of that,' replied Mr Mitterrand. The minister said he sincerely believed the thought had not crossed the Socialist President's mind.
On 7 May next year, the final round of the presidential election will mark the end of Mr Mitterrand's second seven-year term in office. There is no shortage of viable candidates on the right, with Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, and Jacques Chirac, the president of the Gaullist RPR party, the front-runners.
On the left, the situation is more fuzzy since Michel Rocard, the most likely Socialist candidate for some years, was ousted from the party leadership last month after a disastrous performance in the European elections. Even had he remained, Mr Rocard was tipped as a sure loser by all the opinion polls.
Jacques Delors, the European Commission president, is a long- time favourite among many Socialists but he has not declared his candidacy yet. While this may simply be a tactical move, several sources say he is reluctant to get involved in a presidential battle he fears he would lose.
Others, such as Bernard Tapie, the controversial entrepreneur and politician, or Jack Lang, the flamboyant former Socialist culture minister, might decide to stand if Mr Delors cannot be persuaded to take his chance.
In any case, no one on the left looks strong enough to challenge the dominant conservative coalition of the RPR and the centre- right Union for French Democracy (UDF). Except Mr Mitterrand himself. And the idea is gaining currency that he may be contemplating running for a third time.
'He could say in the last few weeks that, since there is no one available on the left, he has to sacrifice himself again,' said a senior French civil servant recently. 'He could say that he will stay in office just for a year or two while the left sorts itself out.'
When asked if he would run again, Mr Mitterrand pouts and gives a dismissive wave of the hand. However, a committee has been set up to press the President to go for a third mandate.
At the same time, another committee has been created to promote Mr Delors's candidature. But, supporters of Mr Delors complain, the Commission president is genuinely reticent, quoting family reasons, sciatica and the political career of his daughter, Martine Aubry, the former labour minister, as reasons not to campaign at 70.
A more Machiavellian theory is that Mr Delors has decided to cultivate the reluctant look and wait until the end until declaring, believing that his stature and popularity in the country will spare him the need for a gruelling time on the hustings.Reuse content