Mitterrand has his way as world mourns

In memoriam: Wife and mistress, kings and presidents join the French people on a day of high emotion in Paris and Jarnac
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The Independent Online




Lashed by a biting winter wind, beneath skies heavy with rain, France yesterday said its final adieus to Francois Mitterrand, the president who had given the French left hope that a Socialist could not only be elected to supreme power, but exercise that power with authority.

For the first day since Mr Mitterrand's death from cancer on Monday, flags flew at half-staff throughout the country. There was a nationwide minute of silence at 11 o'clock; in Paris and other cities, public transport came to a halt. These were the outward and official signs of a country in mourning, the few national gestures sanctioned by Mitterrand in the detailed instructions that he entrusted to his executors - and for one day only.

In the small Charente town of Jarnac, where he was born, his coffin was accompanied from the parish church of St Pierre to the graveyard by family and close friends, watched by thousands of local people and visitors standing silently in drizzle and driving wind.

In an expression of broadmindedness and reconciliation much remarked upon, the mourners included Mitterrand's long-standing mistress, Anne Pingeot, and their daughter, Mazarine. They walked, supporting each other, just a few steps behind the widow, Danielle, and her sons, Jean-Christophe and Gilbert.

On the way from the church, the cortege halted briefly outside the house in which the future president was born, where a bouquet of roses hung over the porch. In a touching detail, stipulated by Mitterrand in his last instructions, his black labrador, Baltic, accompanied the procession.

The cemetery was opened to the public in the early afternoon, and the two wreaths, of pink roses and of irises, which Mitterrand had instructed should lie alone on the white stone family vault were soon covered with a mountain of red roses.

The intimate ceremonies in Jarnac took place at the same time as a solemn requiem Mass at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Celebrated by the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Mass was attended by more than 60 heads of state and government, including Boris Yeltsin, Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro, and a host of other foreign dignitaries, French government ministers and other political figures. Tears ran down the cheeks of Helmut Kohl, Mitterrand's partner in building a united Europe.

Britain sent one of the larger European delegations, being represented by the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, John Major; Tony Blair and Alan Beith for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, as well as the former prime ministers Edward Heath and James Callaghan.

The nearby streets and precincts of the cathedral were crammed with people, some carrying the single red rose that was the symbol of Mitterrand's 1981 election victory.

At the end of the service the sonorous cathedral bell tolled over strangely quiet streets, as VIPs scrambled into the buses waiting to transport them to a reception at the Elysee Palace.

There were memorial gatherings in places most closely associated with Mitterrand. InChateau-Chinon, among the hills and forests of the Morvan in central France, there was a mass meeting at town hall, where Mitterrand had served as mayor. Shops drew their blinds at 11 o'clock.

Almost 1,000 people gathered at Solutre rock where Mr Mitterrand walked en famille. At the Socialist Party headquarters in Paris, party officials and workers held their own farewell, before going toNotre Dame.

But the overwhelming impression from the past four days is of the esteem in which Mitterrand was held, despite the doubts that arose in latter years about his integrity, despite revelations about relations with the Vichy regime, despite the political and not just physical weakness that dogged his later years. For a president who had left office in a distinctly muted manner, without the generous tributes that might have been accorded after 14 years, the esteem expressed at his death has been lavish indeed.

Yesterday's two Masses also testified in their own ways to the respect and affection felt for Mitterrand's memory. Thepersonal emotion was plain to see.

There has been discord during the mourning: from some Gaullists who criticised Mr Chirac for his televised tribute to the late president; even among the Socialist factions some splits were clearly visible.But between Mitterrand's death on Monday and his burial, however, those political enmities and faction rivalries were drowned out by a national and popular sense of history. Political life can now resume.