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Mitterrand's spirit takes a bow as France tunes up for grand finale

One year after his death, the nation prepares to pay tribute to its former president. Mary Dejevsky reports
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Paris - The shadowy orchestrators of public life in France are tuning up for one of this year's most elaborately arranged, and probably least consequential, commemorations: the first anniversary of the death of the country's former president, Francois Mitterrand, which falls this Wednesday.

A special stamp has been issued, with first-day covers sold in Paris - beneath the controversial glass pyramid of the Louvre that Mitterrand had built - and in Chateau-Chinon, at the town hall of this Morvan town where he was mayor. The broadbrimmed black felt hat that became a Mitterrand trademark has been donated by his widow, Danielle, to the national hat museum near Lyon.

His political foundation, set up to catalogue his archives and pursue Mitterrandist research, has been inaugurated - at a strictly private occasion - by the Mitterrand family and by Mazarine Pingeot, the former president's illegitimate daughter. It was to her, now a student at one of France's elite colleges, that he left his papers.

Later this week there is to be a two-day memorial conference at Unesco on questions of international development, with participants and topics of a distinctly Eighties "retro" flavour.

And, on Saturday, the Mitterrand court - the family and the couple of dozen other people who were accepted into his immediate orbit - will gather at Jarnac, the grey Cognac town where Francois Mitterrand was born and is buried. A street will be named after him, a statue unveiled, and red roses laid at his grave.

The former president's death was announced at 11am on 8 January 1996, barely half a year after he had left office; only days after he had submitted his last writings to his publisher. In the final week of his life, it was said, he had retired to bed at his Paris flat- cum-office, refusing all food and all medicines, awaiting the end.

A year on, so the polls say, the French think that, as president, Mitterrand did more good than bad (53 to 43 per cent). A bigger majority (65 per cent to 34) consider that he was a good, even a great, president - but not as good or as great as De Gaulle.

The black spots on his time in power are seen as his failure to curb unemployment, the economy, and "morality in public life", but they are generally regarded as less black than the sins of the present government, perhaps because they are so incontrovertibly in the past.

It is, perhaps, by comparison with the unpopularity of the present government and president that Mitterrand's memory seems suffused with such a rosy glow. But the ambiguities that surrounded his last years in office are never far away.

"Is it one year already? ... Is it only one year?" was the response of one analyst, reflecting the extent to which Francois Mitterrand was already being regarded posthumously when he died, but also the extent to which his figure has stubbornly refused to fade out completely over the past year.

True, some of the question-marks that hung over his character and his behaviour seem to have been buried with him. His role as collaborator or resistance fighter under the Vichy regime, for instance, has been generally left as a query in recent accounts. The dubious dealings and the suicides in his entourage that scarred his second term as president have also been crowded out of immediate public consciousness by revelations about those who are still alive and closer to power today.

One of the greatest scandals of Mitterrand's presidency, however, the succession of published medical reports from 1982 on that made no mention - on his instructions - of the cancer that eventually killed him, has been perpetuated by his heirs. Thanks to the closed ranks of the French establishment and particularly to its judicial wing, the Mitterrand family is deemed to enjoy the right to privacy accorded by French law to the living.

The Big Secret, an account of Mitterrand's illness by his doctor of 10 years, Claude Gubler, is still banned after a law suit brought by his family. Danielle Mitterrand has occasionally seemed to waver as she expresses support for free speech, but the judge came to her rescue. He spoke of a "gross violation of personal privacy"; the truth did not come into the argument.

This week's anniversary sees a new crop of Mitterrand books on different aspects of the former president's life. One, though, is likely to attract particular attention, and could offer Dr Gubler modest consolation. By Georges-Marc Benamou, one of Mitterrand's "courtiers", it not only confirms the 1982 cancer diagnosis but also gives a merciless description of the former president's last New Year's Eve, when he was too ill to stand by himself, too ill to eat at the same table as the other guests, too ill to stay up until midnight.

"His face was a funeral mask, a face from which all the blood had flowed out, grey, parchment, transparent ... But his gaze held, and that was the only trace of life you could still discern." A mortal, in brief, whose end was nigh.