Mitterrand's valedictory takes broad view

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It was characteristic that he should go out with a flourish. Francois Mitterrand, the outgoing French President, yesterday proposed a new plan to resuscitate the cultures of central and eastern Europe in his last speech to the European parliament, writesAndrew Marshall.

Mr Mitterrand was, in theory, presenting the priorities of France for the next six months, during which it will chair the EU. But in practice, he used his speech to sketch a broader view of European construction, putting forward once more the ideas he has been propagating for 14 years as one of Europe's most important statesmen. Alongside Helmut Kohl and Jacques Delors, Mr Mitterrand drove European integration.

He suggested a new agency to promote and support culture in central and eastern Europe, intended to reverse the years of decline under Communism. "The Union should take a major initiative to repair, especially in the cultural field, the damage done by their years of isolation," he said. This, above all, would show that "rather than eradicating national cultural identity, we are strengthening it".

Mr Mitterrand's speech was peppered with references to national and European culture. Minority languages should be strengthened, he said, picking out Gaelic as an example. The EU needed to protect European culture, he said, an obvious reference to the battle over quotas on foreign television programmes. Otherwise, he said, "what will happen to the expression of our soul?" This also meant finding ways of bolstering a sense of European identity. "We have to rediscover the places and objects that are within our common memory," he said.

Mr Mitterrand is ill, dying even, yet he stood at the podium and spoke for 45 minutes. He won a standing ovation, and the undivided attention of a full chamber for an elegant discussion of state, nation and Europe.

In opposition to the neo-liberal spirit of the age until the last, Mr Mitterrand reserved his strongest phrases for Anglo-Saxon economics. "Markets are only means," he said. "They are too often dominated by the law of the jungle: the strongest wins out."

Mr Mitterrand's speech was packed with references to the social dimension of Europe, to the importance of public services and trade unions. "I won't hide that I think we should have gone further at Maastricht: we should have incorporated the whole socialcharter," he said.

The President finished with a sombre phrase. "Nationalism is war," he said. "War is our past. It can also be our future."