Francois Mitterrand was diagnosed as suffering from incurable bone cancer only six months after taking office in 1981 and was judged "incapable of exercising his functions" as head of state half a year before he left office, according to his long-time personal physician, Claude Gubler.
Dr Gubler's revelations, along with two "snatched" photographs of Mitterrand laid out on his death bed, were published in a special edition of Paris Match yesterday and shocked many French people, provoking a ferocious debate about personal privacy, medical ethics and the question of honesty and openness in politics.
They also threatened to tarnish irrevocably the reputation of the former president, who authorised publication of regular reports on his health but declared the crucial information about his cancer a "state secret".
The cover of Paris Match broke another taboo by showing Mitterrand's widow, Danielle, comforting his illegitimate daughter, Mazarine, at the graveside.
Initially, it was the photographs of Mitterrand on his death bed - laid out in dark suit and striped tie, hands peacefully folded - that shocked; less because they went beyond the bounds of good taste than because they had been taken at all. Only family and personal friends of Mitterrand were allowed access to the room where he died, yet one of those had recorded the scene and passed the photographs to Paris Match.
Mitterrand's widow Danielle, their two sons and Mazarine - signing herself Mitterrand for the first time - announced legal action against both Dr Gubler and Paris Match. The magazine defended its decision to publish in an editorial which described the pictures as "having impressed with their beauty, strength and gravitas".
The French media generally show a respect for personal privacy, even of the most public figures, that would be unthinkable in Britain.
It was this same respect for privacy, which may gradually be declining, that allowed the existence of Mitterrand's mistress and his daughter to be kept secret from the French public for almost 20 years.
But it was the revelations of Dr Gubler, Mitterrand's personal physician until 1994, that caused the louder outcry. Politicians lined up to condemn the "breach of medical confidentiality" and deny that Mitterrand was in any way incapable of exercising power, even in the last months of his presidency.
Dr Gubler's account, however, poses a central question about the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship and the voters' right to know. According to the doctor, he diagnosed the President's illness in October 1981 - and it was confirmed by a second specialist a month later. On being told that he probably had only three years to live, Mitterrand - who had achieved his life's ambition of becoming president only six months before - is said to have murmured in response: "Then I'm done for."
Mitterrand's second instinct, as a politician, was to declare the subject a state secret, a secret which Dr Gubler says he kept faithfully for 14 years and was finally released from by Mitterrand himself. The first the French public knew of any cancer was in 1992, when he was first operated on. The statement issued then referred to cancer of the prostate, but not to the fact that it had already spread.Reuse content