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Mitterrand: an amorality tale

The French president was the epitome of a man without principle, argues Jonathan Fenby
From Mohammed al-Masari to Whitewater, from South Korea's disgraced former presidents to a dozen European funding scandals, politics and morality sit uneasily together.And nobody epitomised the amorality of politics better than Francois Mitterrand, France's longest-serving president, who died on Monday. It did him no harm, keeping him in what is constitutionally the most powerful elective post in the West for 14 years, but the effects on his country hardly merit the tributes being paid on all sides this week.

The tenacity of Mitterrand's quest for power has become the stuff of legend - how this politician from the pre-atomic age battled for almost four decades before winning supreme power. His reverses and recoveries through the Fourth Republic and the first 23 years of the Fifth Republic were enough to turn anybody into an intensely private, distrustful schemer for whom any sign of dissidence amounted to treason. The irony was that the moment of greatest hope for the progress of the French centre-left was precisely the moment at which a politician rooted in the introverted politics of the Forties and Fifties moved into the Elysee palace.

Mitterrand always insisted that what he prized above all was freedom. What he really meant was irresponsibility to anybody but himself. Thus he could have friendly lunches at his country home in the Seventies with the former collaborationist police chief responsible for the mass deportation of Jews in 1942, and wax indignant when questioned about it. Thus he could play favourites with successive prime ministers, advance the career of a Flash Harry entrepreneur as a supposedly serious politician, and block the left's best hope for the Nineties out of personal vindictiveness. Thus he could refuse to return the telephone calls of one prime minister, who committed suicide in his depression, switch policies at the drop of a hat and introduce an electoral system that was bound to aid the rise of the National Front.

There were constants: for most of his career Mitterrand supported social reform andwas a committed European. But from the abandonment of the initial attempt to build socialism in one country, it was the shifts and manoeuvres that increasingly came to define the man. By his second presidency, from 1986 to 1993, Mitterrand had become the epitome of a man without principle, the king of a court in which the role of chamberlain might be played equally well by a prime minister from left or right and where the monarch's natural daughter was sheltered on the public purse.

The corruption at court echoed beyond the palace walls. Since 1990, dozens of prominent businessmen and politicians have been hauled up on charges of fraud and other wrong-doing. Figures in past Socialist administrations have been accused of involvement in anything fromillicit funding arrangements and the diversion of public cash, to scandals over a telephone-tapping ring approved by the Elysee and the supply of HIV-contaminated blood to the national health service.

One former minister was sentenced to jail for rigging a football match; a Mitterrand confidant shot himself in the Elysee; one of the President's oldest friends used official information for insider dealing.

France's scandals are by no means confined to the left. But it does not matter much where the graft is detected. The net effect of the later Mitterrand years - and of the Mitterrand style - has been to undermine public confidence in those who rule the country and - more important - in the state.

An opinion poll taken before the presidential election last spring showed that the Frenchwanted to be able to put their confidence in a "strong state". In return, they have traditionally been ready to accept government by elites and by a political class that is not at home with Anglo-Saxon notions of democracy. But now the centre no longer provides the rock round which the country can revolve.

At some point, back in the Eighties, France's president made one deal too many, stabbed one former associate too many in the back and moved one step too far into the world of politics for its own sake. Mitterrand may have been hailed by Parisian commentators as a political artist, but he leaves a sombre canvas behind him.

The author was Reuter bureau chief in Paris 1968-73 and Paris correspondent for the 'Economist' 1982-85.