Red roses for Mitterrand as France mourns loss of a leader

Stephen Jessel Paris
Tuesday 09 January 1996 00:02 GMT

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Throughout the day they queued outside his office in the avenue Frederic- Le Play to lay bunches of flowers or just to leave a red rose, the emblem of his party. Francois Mitterrand, the longest-serving president in French history, died yesterday morning in Paris at the age of 79, eight months after his 14-year period in office ended.

By early evening, with the lights of television cameras ranged on a huge derrick and the illumination of the Eiffel tower, the scene resembled a film set. The early edition of Le Monde, which is published in the afternoon in Paris, was delayed by two hours for the news of the former president's death to be given its due place.

Like him or not, and many French people did not, there was no doubting the sense in Paris yesterday of a historic event. On the streets, in the bars and in taxis, the conversation was all of the late president.

News of his death was given by his successor Jacques Chirac to journalists assembled at the Elysee Palace for the annual ceremony - subsequently postponed - at which the head of state gives them his best wishes for the coming year. Even at the last, it seemed, the wily old Socialist had got the better of Mr Chirac.

"For 14 years M. Mitterrand wrote an important page in the history of our country," said President Chirac of the man against whom he stood unsuccessfully for election to president in 1988, paying tribute to his role in ensuring the proper working of the the institutions of the Fifth Republic. Mr Chirac singled out Mitterrand's role in making possible the smooth transition of power between the political right and left and his contribution to the building of Europe.

Tributes came from many parts of the political spectrum yesterday. The Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, spoke of Mitterrand's role in restoring pride to the French left and of his courage, describing him as a decisive figure of the end of the 20th century. Mr Juppe's predecessor Edouard Balladur described Mitterrand as a statesman deeply imbued with a sense of nation.

But perhaps the most significant and heartfelt of the tributes came from across theRhine. "Europe has lost a great statesman in Francois Mitterrand. I mourn a good friend," said the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl. The two embodied the Franco-German axis that has dominated the process of European integration, but which now looks shaky.

The legacy that Mitterrand has bequeathed to Jacques Chirac, and to France, is uncertain. Monetary union, which Mitterrand saw as the last, the best chance to cement the union, is in question; and France is struggling to come to terms with its place in Europe.

Not everyone will remember him with affection. "He did France no good. He was bad, all bad," said one Parisian. "He was dishonest and did France only ill." Another said: "He was a great Frenchman, and his death is an important national event."

After Mr Chirac's victory in May 1995 and a handover notable for its good-humoured nature, Mitterrand had largely disappeared from public view. He faced his cancer with a detached and philosophical resignation and great courage. "It's not dying that worries me. It's no longer being alive." Although visibly weakened, he continued to work, write and travel. He spent Christmas in Egypt, where photographs showed him to be very frail.

Mitterrand and his wife, Danielle, acquired, amid controversial circumstances, a small plot of land in a national park in the Morvan region of Burgundy for their tombs. But he is to be buried on Thursday in the family vault at Jarnac, the small town in the Charente region in the south-west where he spent his boyhood. The ceremony will be private but Mitterrand's passing will be marked in Paris by a rally and a solemn mass at Notre Dame that will take place simultaneously with the burial in Jarnac.

The mixed reaction on the streets of Paris reflected the complicated and ambiguous nature of the man, more respected than loved; but few contested his intellect and courage.

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