Mitterrand 1916-1996: France remembers

6th January 2006, Comments 0 comments

Mitterrand 1916-1996: France remembers

On the tenth anniversary of the death of former president François Mitterrand, a nostalgia-fest of commemorations, television programmes and political musings bears witness this week to France's abiding fascination with this most complex of 20th-century statesmen.

Mitterrand was known as either the 'Fox' or the 'Sphinx'

The ceremonies come to an emotional head Sunday — 10 years to the day since the Socialist party (PS) leader succumbed to cancer at the age of 79 — when hundreds of party faithful will gather in his hometown of Jarnac, in western France, for a day of remembrance.

With all the PS's top brass — and possibly widow Danielle — in attendance, a wreath will be laid on his grave in the local cemetery while the house where he was born in October 1916 — recently bought by the municipality — will be opened to the public.

 Further events are planned in other places associated with the late president, including Château-Chinon in Burgundy where he served as mayor from 1959, Latche in the wooded region of les Landes where he kept a country home, and the PS headquarters in Paris.

Also in Paris, Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë has organised a series of walks to recall Mitterrand's contributions to the capital's architectural landscape, such as the glass pyramid in the Louvre museum, the Opéra at Bastille, the Arab World Institute and the French National Library.


The recent publication of more than 20 books on the former leader covering everything from his views on Palestine to the memoirs of his former bodyguard — as well as the release of a successful film about his last days — suggest that the public appetite for Mitterrandia is as strong as ever.

According to an opinion poll in the left-wing newspaper Libération Monday, he is France's most popular president of the last half century — his 35 percent outstripping even wartime hero Charles de Gaulle and well ahead of the present incumbent Jacques Chirac.

Mitterrand, often referred to as 'Fox' or the 'Sphinx', now seems to embody the ambiguity of modern France as a man who fought both for the Vichy government and the Resistance; a committed Socialist who consciously built an imperial-style presidency and who spent hugely on public works projects intended to serve as monuments to himself; a committed European who opposed Charles de Gaulle's policy on freeing Algeria.

He is credited even by detractors with helping to forge the European Union

 At one point, influenced by a series of financial scandals, the public seemed ready to write off Mitterrand as a corrupt opportunist driven only by his huge ambition; now he is admired for both the longevity of his career, his personal grandeur, and a 'dualist' philosophy that embraced ambiguity and explains the seeming contradictions of his career.

And his influence is still omnipresent, from the public buildings that he had commissioned to the pre-eminence of some of his political protégés, such as Ségolène Royal.

Even Mitterrand's detractors credit him with being one of the primal forces behind the creation of the European Union and the chief forger of the Franco-German axis at the heart of that entity.

It is one of the ironies underlying this weekend's events that the anniversary of his death comes only months after a sweeping French rejection of current EU policy in the Non vote on the constitution, a vote that occurred exactly 10 years after Mitterrand's departure from office.

His accomplishments, scandals

When Mitterrand came to power in 1981 he was hailed as the saviour of the French left, overcoming its traditional divisions by posing as a candidate of modernity and Leftists voters literally danced in the street on the night of his electoral victory.

*sidebar1*His first years saw major changes such as the end of capital punishment, devolution of power to the regions, and the creation of 39-hour work week.

But in 1983 he was forced by economic constraints to abandon his policies of high spending and nationalisations, returning France to mainstream budget orthodoxy. Many on the left of the left never forgave him.

Later, his second seven-year term in office was overshadowed by a series of money scandals, as well as accusations of monarchical self-aggrandisement. Such was the near royal reference for his privacy that the existence of his hidden second family and teenage daughter Mazarine, who was raised in lodgings paid for by French taxpayers, was only made public in 1994.

At the same time details emerged of his political past, which showed he had started life as a far-right Catholic and was honoured by Philippe Pétain's wartime government. For many years he kept up a friendship with the collaborationist police chief René Bousquet.

His prostrate cancer, reportedly first detected in 1981, was also kept a closely guarded secret until 1992. He left office in May 1995, replaced by Jacques Chirac, and would die the following January.

Another native son of Jarnac is Emmanuel Courvoisier

 The French were outraged that his illness had been hidden for so long, a sentiment that explains the media obsession with the official medical reports on Jacques Chirac's health after the so-called 'vascular incident' last September.

Such ambiguities never deterred the loyalist inner guard, led today by the former culture minister Jack Lang who described "Mitterrandisme" this week as "the power of the will and the certainty that one can move mountains by force of spirit."

But politicians on the right are scornful, with Luc Chatel — spokesman of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) — arguing Tuesday that "many of the great problems of today's society are linked to choices made in the 1980s -- bad choices that contradicted economic common sense."

He accused Mitterrand of installing a "culture of public spending" whose consequences the country is now enduring, as well as of cynically promoting the far-right National Front (FN) in order to split the mainstream conservative opposition.

The last great president

Friends and enemies of the late leader agree on very little — except perhaps on one point: that Mitterrand had stature.

As he himself was quoted as saying during the last months of his life: "I am the last great president. After me will be only financiers and accountants."  

A story first recounted in Esquire magazine sums up Mitterrand's vision of himself. On New Year's Eve, 1995, the failing Mitterrand invited have some 30 friends and family members to share with him a menu of oysters, foie gras, capons and a tiny songbird called the ortolan that is said to embody the soul of France and is actually illegal to eat in France.

After being drowned in Armagnac, the roasted bird is eaten whole, bones, organs and all; the diner traditionally wears a napkin over his head while chewing the ortolan, either to better savour the aroma or to hide the act from God, depending on which version of the legend you prefer.

According to the story, Mitterrand consumed the ortolan and refused all further sustenance, dying eight days later.

What a stylish exit: he was arrogant enough to eat an illegal delicacy for his last meal, but his last gesture was symbolically dedicated to the soul of France.

January 2006

Copyright AFP + Expatica

Subject: Living in France

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