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Obituary: Francois Mitterrand

Douglas Johnson
Tuesday 09 January 1996 01:02 GMT

There is a superstition in French political circles that no President of the Republic should attempt to serve two terms. Albert Lebrun had hardly been re-elected when he was overwhelmed by the catastrophe of 1940. General Charles de Gaulle was only a little more than halfway through his second mandate when his defeat in the referendum of 1969 caused him to resign. Francois Mitterrand is said to have hesitated over standing for re-election in 1988, but he rejected the advice of those who were superstitious just as he disregarded the pleas of those who urged him to stand aside and devote himself to his memoirs.

The result was that he became the first man in French history to be twice elected to the presidency by universal suffrage (de Gaulle was made president by a restricted electoral college in 1958), and on 10 May 1992 he was able to celebrate 11 years as president. He was thus the longest-serving non-royal head of state in France and the senior statesman of Europe. The occasion was typically Mitterrand. Some six weeks earlier his Socialist Party had suffered a crushing defeat in the regional elections. It was said that the President's political system was in ruins. His popularity ratings were at their lowest. Would he be able to finish his term of office in 1995? Yet within a short period of time, with a new prime minister, he had bounced back. At the height of the political storm, appropriately, he was seen in his favourite Paris bookshop reading a work of political fiction that described his own demise.

September 1992 provided another example of Mitterrand's desire to live dangerously. He had quite unnecessarily called a referendum to ratify the Maastricht treaty. As the date for the referendum, 20 September, approached, the opposition was seen to be unexpectedly powerful. There were continued rumours about the President's health, rumours which were in fact true. But, before he went into hospital, he appeared on television and in a lengthy debate impressed everyone with his alertness and vigour. Never had he been so persuasive and, although his victory on 20 September was the very narrowest, he was able to address the nation, speaking with difficulty, like a man who had just emerged from hospital, but who, again, was victorious. Commentators exhausted themselves to find words for someone as famous as Dracula for self-resurrections. He invariably survived.

As a sergeant in the army, Mitterrand was wounded and taken prisoner in 1940. But his courage in battle, near Verdun, had earned him the Croix de Guerre. In 1941 he escaped from his prisoner-of-war camp and found a job in Vichy looking after released French prisoners. For this he was decorated with the Petainist decoration of the Francisque. But he was also working for the Resistance. He left his Vichy job and assumed a new identity under the name "Morland". For this, too, he was decorated. Who else still young could emerge from the war with a Croix de Guerre, a Francisque and the Rosette de la Resistance?

Controversies arose over this wartime experience. In May 1981 General de Gaulle's son-in-law General de Boissieu resigned as the Grand Chancellor of the Legion of Honour because Mitterrand had collaborated with Vichy. Again, in September 1994, on the publication of Pierre Pean's book La Jeunesse de Mitterrand, the President responded with three interviews (one on television). It appeared that Mitterrand had been attracted to right-wing politics before 1940 and that, after he had escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and gone to Vichy in 1942, his activities and associations were more important than had been thought. In the Ministry of the Interior he was befriended and helped by Jean-Paul Martin, who worked closely with Rene Bousquet, his superior in charge of the Vichy police - Bousquet, who was responsible for ordering the round-up of some 13,000 Jews (including 4,000 children) at the Vel d'Hiv in Paris on 16 and 17 July 1942. It is not clear whether or not Mitterrand knew Bousquet in 1942, but his claim that he knew nothing about the anti-Jewish laws of Vichy was received with general disbelief.

Most dramatic among the 1994 revelations was the admission that he had formed a friendship with Bousquet even when he was President. Only when the rumours of Bousquet's responsibility for the Vel d'Hiv atrocity became strident did Mitterrand put an end to these relations. He argued that he did not wish to reopen the old wounds of French history. The French nation showed little sympathy for this, but his television appearance on 12 September 1994 revealed an old and sick man talking about his past; this people found moving, sad and courageous.

Mitterrand was anxious to demonstrate that he did not enter the Resistance movement because he had heard the call of General de Gaulle from London, but through other ex-prisoners of war; he claimed that at the age of 25 he was one of their leaders. On the night of 15-16 November 1943, he said, he had flown by Lysander from Anjou to England, returning to Brittany by rowing boat on 26 February 1944.

More important, perhaps, was his relationship with de Gaulle himself. Mitterrand was organising different groups of prisoners of war into a unified resistance movement. In December 1943 he flew from England to Algiers to present to de Gaulle his plans for a merger of the prisoners- of-war organisations. But de Gaulle reproached him with having flown in a British plane and Mitterrand declined to accept that de Gaulle should lead the movement.

Mitterrand became the General Secretary of the Ministry for Prisoners of War in the Provisional government, and at the Liberation of Paris he found himself, at the age of 27, the acting minister. He went on to create the National Movement of Prisoners of War and of the Deported. His position as president of this organisation placed him at the centre of an important pressure group, and gave him a solid backing in his political career. He became one of the leaders of the centre, ex- Resistance party, the Union Democratique Sociale et Republicaine, and in November was elected deputy in the Nievre department. He never forgot his links with the Resistance. In 1981 he could claim to be the only candidate for the presidency who had served in it (except Michel Debre, not a serious candidate) and he made a point of decorating those whom he had encountered in those heroic years, such as Andre Dewavrin ("Colonel Passy") who had been in charge of the secret service of Free France, and a Breton couple who had received him when a Royal Navy corvette, under the command of Lt-Cdr David Birkin (father of the actress Jane Birkin), brought him to the coast of Finistere.

If Mitterrand adhered to the moderate left wing in politics, while remaining firmly anti-Communist, it was because of his Catholic upbringing and education. It was this which gave him a desire for social justice. Born in 1916 at Jarnac in the Charente, he was a member of a large and relatively prosperous family, his father being station-master at Angouleme, later going into business. He was educated at a Catholic school, and studied law and political science in the private Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris. He was a member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul. If he later abandoned religious obedience, he never lost his interest in religious matters. And during the war he resolved that, if he escaped alive, then each Whitsun he would climb to the top of the rock at Solutre, in memory of his comrades who had died. It was a lay pilgrimage, but it was a pilgrimage.

In January 1947, when he was still only 30, he became Minister responsible for the War Veterans. He was successively Minister for Overseas France, Minister of the Interior, Minister for Justice, but he got the reputation of being unscrupulous in his ambitions and unwise in his circle of friends. In 1954 he was accused of having passed defence secrets to Communists. There were those who found him, if not untrustworthy, then opportunistic. Although under the Fourth Republic governments fell regularly, he was always seen as someone who would readily accept office, but he was never thought of as a possible prime minister.

A turning-point in his career came with the rising in Algiers in 1958 and the return to power of de Gaulle. In his determination to oppose de Gaulle he obstinately and courageously organised his political identity. When de Gaulle met political leaders during the crisis, he later recalled, only Mitterrand openly opposed him, "exhaling", as he put it, his disapprobation.

Whereas his companion in opposition Pierre Mendes-France refused to envisage ever standing for office in a constitution that was, for him, rendered undemocratic by the events of 1958, Mitterrand tempered his refusal. He did not accept that de Gaulle was the Republic in person but he was prepared to work within the institutions as they existed. He had created a national network of clubs and political associations. He sought to bring together the left-wing opposition to de Gaulle. In December 1965 he stood against him and, though defeated, won 45 per cent of the votes and appeared as the acknowledged leader of the opposition.

Yet for many he remained untrustworthy. A curious incident hung over him. In 1959, after he had been elected as a senator, he claimed that there had been a right-wing plot to assassinate him, and that he had only escaped by taking refuge in the Luxembourg Gardens, in Paris. Later, it emerged he had known all about this attack and had acted in connivance with his assailants. The matter was deemed serious enough for the Senate to suspend his parliamentary immunity. Most serious was the repetition of the phrase "It is only the ridiculous that kills". Mitterrand had appeared to be ridiculous.

The upheavals of 1968 took him by surprise, as they did everyone. He showed unease that revolutionary students were turning towards Mendes- France rather than him and he responded with some unwise statements, notably when he announced his readiness to replace de Gaulle. When the General did resign, nearly a year later, Mitterrand was not even a candidate in the presidential election, and the official socialist candidate Gaston Deferre got only 5 per cent of the votes.

It was this bad showing that saved Mitterrand. He negotiated a merger between his organisation of clubs and the Socialist Party, and at the conference at Epinay in 1971 he became its First Secretary. He set out to make this party the largest of the Left, to undermine the Communists by signing an agreement with them, to attract the centre by making the socialists the only alternative to Gaullism (as represented by Georges Pompidou). He exploited the presidential system which tended to divide the electorate into two and he presented himself as being above purely party considerations. In 1974 (after the death of Pompidou) he was only narrowly defeated by Valery Giscard d'Estaing (49.3 per cent to 50.7 per cent) and in the 1978 legislative elections the Socialist Party, although failing to win a majority in the Assembly, became the largest party of the Left.

In 1981, after much infighting within the Socialist Party, and after the Common Programme with the Communists had broken down, Mitterrand was again the socialist candidate. He accomplished a difficult task with considerable skill. He presented "110 propositions" which were sufficiently radical to attract Communist and traditional socialist votes (nationalisations, economic planning, a wealth tax, increased workers' rights) but sufficiently reasonable to attract votes from the centre. His victory on 10 May 1981 was seen as representing a significant shift in the balance of power between capital and labour. His supporters did not talk about a change of government, but a change of regime. When the presidential elections were followed by legislative elections in which the socialists won 38 per cent of the vote and an overall majority in the Assembly, then it did seem that a new epoch in French history had dawned. The socialists controlled most of municipal governments, the legislature and the executive.

But after an initial burst of radicalism, with the abolition of the death penalty, with nationalisations, with increased government backing to create jobs and stimulate the economy, labour law reform, and increased welfare benefits, the government showed itself to be increasingly moderate. Nothing further was heard about reforming the presidential supremacy in the constitution. There were no changes in traditional Gaullist defence policy. The Franco-German alliance was maintained and strengthened, and France's commitment to Europe re- emphasised (including membership of the European Monetary System). But most dramatic was the turn towards austerity from 1983. The government became less generous in welfare payments, unemployment grew, electoral promises were shelved. In July 1984 the young Laurent Fabius became Prime Minister. Thereafter the watchword was "modernisation" rather than "social justice".

The government became unpopular, and although Mitterrand changed the electoral law, introducing proportional representation so as to limit the disaster, the elections of 1986 produced an Assembly in which the opposition predominated. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic the President had to appoint as prime minister someone - Jacques Chirac - who was his political enemy.

Again Mitterrand adapted to the situation. He behaved like a monarch who reigns but does not govern. He dissociated himself from the government's domestic policy, except for the occasional - but much-noticed - remark. However he was active in foreign affairs. Consequently the unpopular president of 1984- 86 was replaced by the well-liked "Tonton" (uncle). As the 1988 elections approached, and rumours grew that he might not be a candidate, crowds in the streets encouraged him. "Do not desert us, Tonton," they shouted.

But the elections of 1988 presented Mitterrand with a problem. He could not, as in 1981, launch a programme of reform or of expansion. He could not continue to be the sagacious but distant monarch. He found the solution. He was to be the essential creator of the new Europe. In the gigantic market that was to be created, France would have, by virtue of its varied economy and technological achievements, an advantageous role. As foreign and defence policies merged, then France, with its German ally, would dominate the other members of the Community.

And, after his re-election, this was his policy, culminating in his determination to get the Maastricht agreement adopted. Europe was his priority. If he was surprised by German reunification, his answer was to tie Germany more closely to Europe and to France. If he was surprised by the break-up of the Soviet empire and of Eastern European Communism, his reaction was to see to it that France would play an important role with regard to the new states. Hence his courageous visit to war-torn Sarajevo in June 1992. If he was disturbed by the Gulf war his response was to make France a peacemaker (he thought of going to Baghdad himself) and, when that failed, an important element in the military strength.

All these efforts failed to save the Socialist Party. The recession and rising unemployment were the official excuses. More important was the multitude of scandals that had affected the socialists over the years, notably insider trading and illegal party funding. The nation had lost confidence in its rulers. Mitterrand made Pierre Beregovoy his Prime Minister in April 1992 as a guarantee of sound finance; he himself preached the doctrine of "la Republique sociale". But on 28 March 1993 the right-wing parties won 484 seats to the Left's 92. It was a humiliation for Mitterrand.

He coped with this new cohabitation with his customary skill. He avoided confrontations except on subjects about which he felt strongly, such as immigration, the rights of young workers, the importance of state education. He continued to concentrate his efforts on France's role in the world, as shown by the sending of French troops to Rwanda, well in advance of international opinion. The Franco-German alliance was strengthened and was solemnised when a unit of German soldiers eventually took part in the 14 July parade down the Champs Elysees.

But the scandals had continued. In May 1993 Beregovoy committed suicide; a few months later, a trusted aide, Francois de Grossouvre, shot himself in the Elysee Palace. These mysterious events, and the nature of some of Mitterrand's friendships, were the source of rumours which damaged his reputation. And they occurred as speculation grew as to who would be elected President in the spring of 1995.

On 14 July 1993 Mitterrand declared that he would like his successor to be someone who shared his views. It was assumed that he was thus designating Jacques Delors but no one could be certain. Four days after these remarks he entered hospital and underwent his second operation for cancer of the prostate. He was then aged 77.

In 1944 he had married Danielle Gouze. She was a loyal if often independent consort, sometimes acting as his radical conscience and devoted to humanitarian causes throughout the world. In November 1994 Paris-Match publicised what many people in France had known for a long time, that the President had a second menage and a 20-year-old daughter called Mazarine by that menage.

Few politicians have been so adaptable and so resourceful as Francois Mitterrand. It is not enough to say that he was "enigmatic" or to describe him simply as the cunning fox of French politics. He was much more than that. By the time he became President he was perhaps the most experienced and most knowledgeable figure on the world scene. He was shrewd, detached, an acute observer.

Most French people envied him. He was a very Parisian figure, well-known in the Left Bank, frequently seen in discreet and elegant restaurants. He was also a countryman, tending his oaks and exercising his dogs in his property in south-west France. He was cultivated, well-acquainted with classical literature, speaking and writing an elegant French, on good terms with many writers and artists. He was highly successful with women, a fact that never created scandal, but enforced his position as someone to be admired.

With a great sense of history, Mitterrand sought to leave his mark on Paris with buildings, such as Opera-Bastille, the Pyramid at the Louvre and the new national library by the Gare d'Austerlitz. All these have been highly controversial, but typically Mitterrand was unperturbed, devoting much time to each of them.

With his term of office ending, he sought to hasten his departure. No ceremony was to accompany the transfer of power to Chirac and his leaving the Elysee Palace on 17 May.

There were surprises. Attending the VE celebrations on 9 May in Germany, he praised the bravery of the German soldiers in the war, and claimed that the victory of the Allies was the victory of Europe over itself. Was this a final plea for Europe, and for the Franco-German friendship that is the essence of Europe? Was it a plea to reconcile the past with the present that was personal as well as political? For some, it was a speech that should not have been made; for others it was intensely moving; it was provocative and ambiguous. Francois Mitterrand was true to himself.

The solemnity of retirement came from the knowledge that the former President's life was drawing to a close (especially when it was known that he had chosen the plot of land where he wished to be buried). But he continued to surprise his entourage, especially the doctor who always accompanied him, by taking long walks in the countryside and by visiting Venice and Egypt. As he expected, the new President reversed his policy by accepting Republican responsibility for the rounding-up of Jews during the occupation. But Mitterrand kept silent. He was resigned to the return of Bousquet to public attention - the disturbed man who had assassinated Bousquet in June 1993 was put on trial in November 1995 - but he was irritated by the speculation about the wealth he had supposedly accumulated during his Presidency.

He was said to be annoyed when his friend and former adviser Jacques Attali published a further volume of extracts from his conversations, but he may well have been secretly delighted to read the disparaging wit with which he had treated his most eminent political opponents. More striking was his conversation with the Nobel prizewinner Elie Wiesel, which appeared, as Memoire a deux, as he retired. He had worked hard on this volume, preparing his remarks with constant writing and rewriting. He spoke of his childhood, his ambitions, his religious interests, and much else. Politics, he said, did not confer supreme power. This was reserved for those who had the ability to create.

In all these interventions, Francois Mitterrand took care not to appear as a politician, but rather as a philosopher. He was not seeking to justify himself to others. What was important for him was his judgement of himself.

Francois Maurice Marie Mitterrand, politician: born Jarnac, Charente 26 October 1916; Secretary General, Organisation for POWs, War Victims and Refugees 1944-46; Deputy for Nievre, National Assembly 1946-58, 1962- 81; Minister for Ex-Servicemen, Secretary of State to Presidency of the Council and Minister of State 1947-54; National President, Union Democratique et Socialiste de la Resistance 1951-52; Minister of the Interior 1954- 55; Minister of State for Justice 1956-57; Mayor of Chateau-Chinon 1959- 81; Senator for Nievre 1959-62; President, Federation of Democratic and Socialist Left 1965-68; First Secretary, Socialist Party 1971-81; President of France 1981-95; married 1944 Danielle Gouze (two sons); died Paris 8 January 1996.

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