Paris Stories: A spectre in the Elysée, and the odd case of the Foreign Minister's 'son'

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The Independent Online

A spectre is haunting Paris: the spectre of a man who left office 10 years ago, who died nine years ago, but still exercises a curious fascination on the French mind. The spectre even managed to appear at a political show trial of his former acolytes last week - as haughty and cynical in death as he was in life.

A spectre is haunting Paris: the spectre of a man who left office 10 years ago, who died nine years ago, but still exercises a curious fascination on the French mind. The spectre even managed to appear at a political show trial of his former acolytes last week - as haughty and cynical in death as he was in life.

On Wednesday, a much-awaited movie, based on the spectre's final days, opens in Paris. The spectre's illegitimate daughter - whose existence he managed to hide from the nation for 18 years - is about to publish a new book on her dad. The spectre is, of course, François Mitterrand, much livelier and more active in death than he sometimes appeared in life. The movie is called Le Promeneur du Champs-de-Mars. It tells the story of a dying ex-president - obviously Mitterrand - who takes a walk each morning with an idealistic young left-wing journalist.

The journalist wants to talk of politics, idealism, socialism and the future of the world. The old man wants to talk about death. Michel Bouquet, who plays the president, looks grim and grey. Those who knew Mitterrand say Bouquet does a remarkable job - but he is jolly and smiles too much.

The whole concept breaks new ground for a French movie. In France, politicians' private lives are sacrosanct even unto death. There has still been no proper movie about Charles De Gaulle. (Gérard Depardieu was contracted to make one but nothing came of it.)

At the same time, the trial of the Elysée buggers is finally coming to an end. For almost six weeks, 12 officials and policemen formerly on Mitterrand's staff at the Elysée Palace in the 1980s and 1990s have been on trial for placing illegal phone taps on politicians, journalists and the actress Carole Bouquet, at Mitterrand's request. The bugging was nominally to protect national security but mostly to protect the secret of the president's mistress and illegitimate daughter.

In his lifetime, no French journalist ever dared to ask Mitterrand about the phone taps, but an intrepid Belgian TV crew did so in March 1993. Their tape was shown at the trial. The president (shocked to be asked such a question) said: "The Elysée listens to nothing. There is no system of tapping here." Three more times, the journalist puts the question. Mitterrand: "If I had known that we would fall to these depths, I would never have accepted the interview." He flounces out.

Mitterrand believed chiefly in himself, but regarded that as a kind of idealism. He was a great political actor who thought no one else was capable of playing the role of president. Asked what was the most important quality in a statesman, he said: "Indifference".

He was the archetype of an old, monstrous kind of French politician, who is disappearing from French life. Jacques Chirac is only a shadow of the master. And yet something in the French still hankers after the baroque mysteries of Mitterrand.

The first question to Condoleezza Rice after her speech in Paris on Tuesday was asked by a young student called Benjamin Barnier. The French Foreign Minister is called Michel Barnier. He has a teenage son called Benjamin.

Barnier junior was prevailed upon to withdraw his initial question, which was regarded as too harsh. ("Why is George Bush so hated in the world?") American newspapers were very amused by this typical piece of Gallic manipulation. Where else but in France or North Korea would the foreign minister's son ask the first question?

But the young man, it turns out, was not Michel Barnier's son. He has the same name, but is no relation.

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