The old way of inventing Europe went to its tomb in France last week Mitterrand's death brings the building of Europe out of the shadows means Europe must be built His death was a work of art;

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FRANCOIS Mitterrand taught the French how to die. For several years, he shared with the French people, in television interviews or printed dialogues, his experiences and emotions about the approaching end of his life. He talked about pain and its control, about the nature of his reluctance to die, about the possibility of life beyond the grave. (His ironic speculation about what God would say to him made the deity sound rather like Charles de Gaulle! "Alors, Mitterrand, vous m'avez vu!").

So when Mitterrand did die, last week, it seemed all according to plan. Possibly it was; he appears to have decided the moment with his physician. But he did more than give the French an example of courage and philosophy. He pulled off a majestic trick, admired but seldom achieved by wise men and women through the ages. By turning his own death into a work of art, he gave the whole of his preceding life the semblance of form, coherence, consistency.

It is the grandest of illusions. But it is an illusion, all the same, because the truth about his zigzag life is that it had no form; it was a series of haphazard opportunities to which Mitterrand rose like a trout snapping at flies. He adored being alive, and took from life in France all the sensual delights on offer: his own table in favourite restaurants, pretty women, power, money and books. He had inimitable style. But he was devoid of principle.

Mitterrand, an ultra-right Catholic boy in the 1930s, served Vichy and was decorated by Marshal Petain, but soon sniffed the wind and turned to organising clandestine resistance. He quarrelled with de Gaulle and migrated to the Left in order to challenge him, but ruled as President after 1981 by enjoying all the powers which he had denounced as poisonous to liberty. He was elected on a platform of old-fashioned socialism, but within three years wrenched his party across to a programme of financial liberalism.

Perhaps his opportunism was a creed in itself. At all events, his lack of principle meant that this character out of Stendhal was amazingly loyal to his old friends, however far their political paths had diverged, and he saw no reason - as late as the 1990s - to stop enjoying the company of Rene Bousquet, who had organised the wartime deportation of France's Jews to their deaths.

Another illusion which Mitterrand generated around himself was his sense of history. "The old left-right division is being swept away by the great wind of history," he typically said in 1954, and equally typically was quite wrong. Over Germany, be invoked history to claim, absurdly, that East Germany was stronger and more enduring than the West ("the Prussians will stand up to the Bavarians!"). In assessing the earthquakes of 1989- 91, Mitterrand was wronger longer than any other Western statesman.

So it is altogether extraordinary that this man, of all French leaders, should have put decisive energy into realising the most high-minded and Utopian of designs; the European Union. Mitterrand, pushed by his friend Jacques Delors, played the leading part in the Single European Act in 1985 and the Maastricht agreements a few years later. De Gaulle rolled in his grave. But Mitterrand, no less a French patriot, had put down his history book and for an instant seen the world as it was: the only way to save the crucial French partnership with the new reunited Germany was to embed that Germany in an integrated European Union.

It was odd, too, that he should have formed so close a comradeship with Helmut Kohl. But for more than a decade the clumsy Christian conservative from the provinces and the super-civilised French socialist hauled the project of European union over the point of no return. When they suddenly sought one another's hand, as they stood in the horrible vaults beneath Verdun, it was not premeditated. And Mitterrand's death, although so long foreseen, has devastated the German Chancellor. What was it, then, that bound them together?

It was the experience of war. Helmut Kohl was a boy when it ended, granted what he has called "the mercy of being born too late". Mitterrand, in contrast, went through it all as a man. The lessons he drew went further than a noble "never again" vow. For this fastidious loner, the worst thing about war was its rape of consciences: the way in which the best instincts of ordinary people were mobilised in the service of the worst evils.

This is why, at the Berlin ceremony last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the war's end, Mitterrand stupefied his own nation by honouring Hitler's soldiers. "It matters little to me what uniform they wore, what ideas they had, these soldiers about to die in such vast numbers... They accepted the loss of their lives, in a bad cause, but they loved their country."

Only an elitist could afford to pity his enemies in that godlike way. Mitterrand was not what Anglo-Saxons mean by a democrat. And the European Union has been constructed in that Mitterrand style by private agreements between statesmen and officials and financiers. Maastricht, said Mitterrand, was the work of "a little group, an elite, a social class, a socio-professional grouping".

All through, the peoples of Europe remained outside the conference door. All through, they have been presented with the successive faits accomplis of a supranational Europe, and told that each was good for them. Mostly, they agreed. Only when it seemed unavoidable have they been permitted a referendum - even Mitterrand held one, in 1992 after Maastricht, and nearly lost it.

Why did Helmut Kohl weep at the requiem mass in Notre Dame? For a friend, surely, but perhaps for Europe too. He is the last survivor of the "little group", and ahead lies the steepening slope for the final heave up to enlargement, to the sweeping reform of the Union which enlargement requires, to the single currency.

Europe can no longer rely on the leadership of those who remember the war. The future is in the hands of a generation which takes the existence of the Union for granted, which finds nothing amazing about the freedom to move and work or trade from Crete to Shetland. Will this generation feel the same urgency to complete the structure?

Perhaps not. But the Union has acquired a momentum of its own, growing as much as being constructed. The real danger about the heirs to Mitterrand and Kohl - paradoxical as it sounds - is their turn away from elitism.

Politicians now in their forties or fifties are nervous about governing by cabal. They know that modern electorates want to share in big decisions, or at least to watch them being taken. But there are bad ways of bringing public opinion into the European process, as well as good ones. There is the increasing of democracy: more power for the European Parliament, more transparency in Brussels. But there is also the recourse to mob nationalism and the state flag: "to wake the stubborn Englishry"against further European integration, as Baroness Thatcher threatened last week.

Which will it be? Probably both at once. The only certainty is that the old way of inventing Europe went to its tomb in France last Wednesday. The wise men and women of wartime and post-wartime, who did not entirely trust their own peoples and felt that there was no time to wait for them, are passing away. From now on, the experts building the Union will have to work by daylight, with 200 million people hanging over the fence and shouting advice. It may not be the best way to build, but from now on it is the only way.