From stationmaster's son to master of France

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The Independent Online
Early years

Francois Maurice Marie Mitterrand is born in 1916 in Jarnac in south-western France, the fifth child of a railway stationmaster. He is sent to Roman Catholic colleges and soon becomes active in a right-wing student fraternity. In 1937, Mitterrand graduates with a degree from the prestigious Institute of Political Sciences.

The Second World War

Mitterrand (in helmet, back row) serves in the French army from 1939-40, and is wounded and taken prisoner after the fall of France in 1940. After he escapes from Germany in 1941 he becomes an official of the collaborationist Vichy government but while in Vichy is active also in the anti-Nazi Resistance. He meets General Charles de Gaulle in Algiers in 1943 and is smuggled back to France to run an intelligence network.


Elected a member of parliament in 1946, he later serves as Interior Minister from 1954-57. He takes a hard line on Algeria's War of Independence, saying: 'The only negotiation is war'. He opposes De Gaulle's return to power in 1958 and in 1965 forces him into a run-off in a presidential election. Only in 1971, with the unification of the Socialists, does he build up a real power-base and is narrowly defeated in the presidential election of 1974 by Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

After the Cold War

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marks a watershed. It threatens to split the Franco-German axis, but Mitterrand and Kohl work together to create a new alliance. The result is the Maastricht treaty in 1991, committing Europe to political and monetary union. Mitterrand uses the Gulf War in 1990-91 to remind the world that France is still a global political force, while freezing French nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific. His popularity reaches a peak.

Election victory

On 10 May 1981 he defeats Valery Giscard d'Estaing to be France's first Socialist president, triggering wild celebrations. He goes on to nationalise much of the economy, but in 1983, after three devaluations of the franc, is forced to adopt austerity policies. From 1986-8 Mitterrand is forced to 'cohabit' with a conservative government headed by prime minister Jacques Chirac after the Socialists lose parliamentary elections. But in 1988 he defeats Chirac to be re-elected for a second term.

The final phase

In September 1992 he is diagnosed as having cancer. In March 1993, the Socialists are crushed by the centre-right in parliamentary elections, launching another period of cohabitation. In July 1994, Mitterrand has another operation. At the 1995 election, the Socialists lose power and Mitterrand hands over to Jacques Chirac.