Regal manner kept private scandals out of public eye

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For all the royal demeanour that he brought to the presidency, Francois Mitterrand never chose to make a spectacle of his family circle. Following French political tradition, he gave little away about his personal life, aside from the occasional near-obligatory hint about his great reputation as a womaniser.

Towards the end of his life, the reasons for such reticence became understood. In November 1994, Paris-Match splashed across its cover a photograph of the President leaving a restaurant with his "secret", illegitimate 19- year-old daughter, called Mazarine. Inside one learnt Mitterrand had been keeping Mazarine's mother, Anne Pingeot, as an unofficial second wife for years.

In fact, Paris-Match's scoop was less exclusive than it appeared. Political colleagues and journalists were aware of the President's personal arrangements but considered them irrelevant to his public image and never bothered to broadcast them widely. To them, Paris-Match had simply infringed the boundaries of good taste.

One suspects British-style media might have dealt with the Mitterrand family differently, and not only because of Mazarine. There were enough strong personalities around the President to create a whole Dynasty-full of tabloid drama.

First there was Danielle, his legal wife, a headstrong personality in her own right whose trenchant stands on human rights occasionally brought her into conflict with her husband. She also chose other consorts to accompany her on private trips.

Then there was Jean-Christophe, the younger of their two sons, who spent six years as a special presidential adviser on African affairs. In France there was scarcely a murmur about nepotism, but in Africa Mr Mitterrand junior cut such a poor figure that he was nicknamed "Papa-m'a-dit" ("Daddy told me").

The Mitterrand clan had showbiz flair: the President's brother-in-law, Roger Hanin, is a popular television actor, while his nephew, Frederic, is a well-known, over-pompous presenter of cultural programmes and occasional documentary maker.

The discretion of the media must have brought great comfort to a man as intensely private as Mitterrand. He happily browsed through the bookshops of Paris's Latin Quarter with no paparazzi in sight, frequented restaurants with minimal security fuss, and took long walks in the country, either with his close friends, or on his own.

Not quite the way the Windsors have to lead their lives. The French media might have been over-reticent at times with Francois Mitterrand, but perhaps they still have a few lessons to teach us.