Mr Mitterrand, 78 next month, is suffering from cancer of the prostate. Recent reports that he is undergoing chemotherapy have given rise to speculation that he may stand down before the end of his term next May, bringing forward the presidential election. In addition, Mr Mitterrand's early political record and attitudes to the collaborationist Vichy regime have divided his Socialist supporters.
The net effect is that Mr Mitterrand has remained centre-stage and, although his political life is nearing its end, is stealing the limelight from his potential successors. One of these is Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, whose appearance on a prime-time interview programme last night should have been one of the main events of the autumn political rentree.
As it was, the announcement that Mr Mitterrand would be interviewed tonight on France 2, the main state channel, by Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, the chairman of France Television, overshadowed the Balladur broadcast.
During his appearance on the TF1 channel, Mr Balladur refused to answer any questions on Mr Mitterrand and Vichy, beyond saying that Vichy was 'intrinsically bad'. 'Everyone will understand that in my position I cannot express myself.' He was not asked any questions about the President's health.
Almost all the facts about Mr Mitterrand's youth and war-time record were known before the appearance just under two weeks ago of a book by Pierre Pean. What was new was that the President gave Mr Pean material and commented on his own role.
A pre-war cosying up to the extreme-right, at the same time as he went to listen to left-wing speakers, he dismissed as normal for a young man from a provincial, Catholic background. The fact that he was awarded a Vichy decoration can be viewed as irrelevant because he also received a medal for his Resistance work; in any case, maintaining good ties with Vichy was often essential cover for underground work.
That he continued to see Rene Bousquet, the Vichy police chief who ordered the first mass deportation of Jews from Paris in 1942, long after the war and well into his presidency prompted cries of anguish on the left. Mr Mitterrand explained that he continued to see Bousquet because he considered him 'a man of quality'. In Le Monde, Gilles Martinet, a member of the Socialist Party leadership, born in the same year as Mr Mitterrand and one of his most loyal went as far as to argue on Friday that French Socialism could be 're-born only at the price of a break with Mitterrandism'.
Renault decision, page 24
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