François Mitterrand: Ten Years Later

Posted in Other , Europe | 10-Jan-06 | Author: Hichem Karoui

François MitterrandPresident: from May 10, 1981 to May 17, 1995.Born: October 26, 1916; Jarnac, France.Died: January 8, 1996 Paris, France.
François MitterrandPresident: from May 10, 1981 to May 17, 1995.Born: October 26, 1916; Jarnac, France.Died: January 8, 1996 Paris, France.
"If they had to keep of him a lone picture, it would be that of the fighter", says Le Monde(1) of François Mitterrand, the socialist French president, who passed away 10 years ago, but whose itinerary "is still fascinating those who, among right wing conservatives, dream to occupy some day his post in the Elysée ". As examples, Le Monde quotes from both Nicolas Sarkozy and François Bayrou, saying that for the two leaders Mitterrand is the model of tenacity and long- staying in politics and thus deserves admiration.

The commemoration of his death was expected to serve the socialist opposition to launch political attacks against the new government led by M. De Villepin. But it was not really used. Instead, M. Chirac was represented in the ceremony by his chief of staff (chef de cabinet) along with former conservative Prime-Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, as if over the commemoration, right and left have to forget their dissensions for a while.

As it happened, 2005 was not particularly favorable to M.Chirac. It was a year marred by urban riots, the shock rejection of the EU constitution, doggedly high unemployment and the loss to London of the 2012 Olympics.

Two opinion surveys in the past week placed Mitterrand alongside Charles de Gaulle as by far the most popular French presidents of modern times.

According to the Sofres poll in Le Nouvel Observateur magazine, nearly two-thirds of the population have a positive memory of the Mitterrand years from 1981 to 1995, and a similar proportion – including a majority of right-wing voters – say he will have a “great” place in history.

Another poll made of him France’s most popular leader in the last half-century. Some 35 percent of respondents considered Mitterrand to be the best president of France's current fifth republic, which was introduced in 1958, according to the poll carried out by the CSA pollsters. Charles de Gaulle gained 30 percent of the poll in second position with Jacques Chirac garnering just 12 percent in third.

In a similar poll in 2001 De Gaulle came out on top ahead of Mitterrand.

War Years

Francois Mitterrand, the fifth child of a stationmaster, was born in Jarnac, France, on 26th October 1916. An intelligent student, Mitterrand studied law and political science at the University of Paris. On the outbreak of the Second World War Mitterrand joined the French Army, but in 1940 he was wounded during Germany's Western Offensive. After being captured he was taken to Germany, but managed to escape in December 1941.

In 1943 he joined the French Resistance and began working with the Organization of Armed Resistance (ORA). In November 1943, he traveled to London where he met General Charles De Gaulle, who put him in charge of unifying the different groups representing former soldiers.

On his return to France in February 1944, Mitterrand became head of the Mouvement National Des Prisonniers de Guerre (National Movement For War Prisoners). At the end of the war Mitterrand was given the job of arranging the return of thousands of French prisoners and deportees that were still in Germany.

Political Fighter

Francois Mitterrand's political career spanned half a century, and his 14 years as president made him France's longest serving leader since Napoleon III. Soon after the liberation, Mitterrand joined the government as its youngest minister, but when de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, Mitterrand left the government.

In 1968, Mitterrand overplayed his hand during the student riots. Bolstered by a pact with the Communists, he challenged de Gaulle for the presidency. He offered himself as either president or prime minister and failed to win either.

François Mitterrand, who had been an independent of the left during the 1950s, took the lead in forming a new Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste) in 1969. He was helped by the near disappearance of the Radicals, although the Communists remained an obstacle to the unity of the left. In 1971, during the famous Epinay congress, Mitterrand rose as the most important leader of the socialists. In 1974 he came close to winning a presidential election, and the Socialists became the dominant party of the left.

He indubitably saw himself as de Gaulle challenger. He also developed a genuine strategy. The left in France, it assumed, could win only if it was united (in other words, if it included the Communists), but its victory would be accepted only if the non-Communist left was the senior partner of the alliance.

Mitterrand made his third run for the presidency in 1981 against the sitting President, Valery Giscard D'Estaing : It was the one.

Socialist Management

When he entered the Elysée in 1981, it was an alternating of power in France that many had not expected to see. The conservatives and Gaullists held power since 1958, and had written a constitution that was “tailored specifically for de Gaulle”, it was said. But when Mitterrand became president, the point was made that, first of all, the left would be allowed to come to power, and secondly, eventually the left would exercise power in responsible ways (i.e. in ways that the right would accept).

Mitterrand's reign started with a rush of socialist enthusiasm. But Socialism soon ran into trouble. The franc was devalued; Finance Minister Jacques Delors warned that Mitterrand's plans were undermining the economy. By 1983 the new leader was forced to change course: inflation was up, the value of the franc was down and the economy was in trouble.

The Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste or PS) was not new to politics although it was launched in 1969, as the main opposition party in France. Historically it has been a democratic socialist party, and still defines itself as such. Yet, most political scientists would say that it is now a social democratic party. A democratic socialist party has existed in France under various names since 1880. For a century, however, it had only fleeting electoral success. It is only with Mitterrand victory in 1981 that the party won both the presidency and (with allies) a majority in the National Assembly for the first time.

From 1983 onward, with their policy of austerity and financial management, the Socialists were getting the blessing of the Bourse and other stock exchanges, but apparently lost the backing of some of their own supporters. The left was thus defeated in the parliamentary elections of 1986, providing the Fifth Republic with its first bout of cohabitation between a president and a Parliament of different political complexion. The victorious right, however, blundered so much that the astute Mitterrand managed to get re-elected. Not until 1993 was the parliamentary assembly, and in 1995 the presidency, to be won back by the right.

The cohabitation was a real challenge for Mitterrand. Twice during his 14 years in office, he was forced to share power with conservative parliaments. During the first period, beginning in 1986, Mitterrand chose Chirac as prime minister. Mitterrand's powers were greatly diminished in the second period, from March 1993 to May 1995, when Prime Minister Edouard Balladur had a huge majority.

At the 1995 presidential election, François Mitterrand retired, and Jacques Chirac defeated the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin. In 1997, however, the Socialists gained a majority in the National Assembly and Jospin became Prime Minister, following a policy that “was broadly progressive but had little to do with socialism as traditionally understood”, it was contended. Chirac again defeated Jospin in the presidential elections of 2002, and Jospin then retired from politics. Later in 2002 Chirac’s allies in parliamentary elections defeated the Socialists. In the 2004 regional elections, however, the Socialists had a major comeback, with François Hollande as secretary-general of the party, and in coalition with the Greens and Communists.

Hichem Karoui is WSN Editor France.
Hichem Karoui is WSN Editor France.
European Leader

Under Mitterrand, France became the great motor of European union ; “the best way, in his view, to control a newly united Germany”, it was asserted.

While supporting before the Bundestag in 1983 the deployment in Europe of American missiles Pershing II, against which a strong German pacifist movement was opposed at the time, Mitterrand did not hesitate sometimes to sidetrack away of his American ally in a certain number of fields: aid to development, a view defended in Cancun in 1981; a favorable position as to the elimination of the less advanced countries’ debt ; Middle East politics (an independent state for the Palestinians); international trade negotiations (GATT Uruguay cycle) etc.

With his British partners, it was not always easy either. An anecdote reported by two British papers illustrates it. The Daily Mirror (2) reports that Margaret Thatcher threatened to use nuclear weapons during the Falk-lands war unless France gave her the launch codes to missiles it sold to Argentina. She was furious that the Royal Navy fleet was being hit and sank by the French-made Exocets. Lady Thatcher allegedly demanded the secret codes so the weapons could be disabled. French President Francois Mitterrand is quoted as saying: "Happily, I gave in. Otherwise, I assure you, that lady's iron finger would have pushed the button."

The story was based on the account given by French psychoanalyst Ali Margoudi in his book Rendez-vous. La psychanalyse de François Mitterrand published in 2005.

Almost the same story about Mitterrand being psychoanalyzed was run by The Sunday Times(3). Although the S.Times calls Mitterrand Magoudi’s patient, it observed however "Magoudi never fathoms Mitterrand out enough to draw up a psychological profile. But in notes taken after their meetings, he writes of his patient’s near-mystical enjoyment of power, his paranoid tendencies, his ‘massive anxiety’ and the way morbid images frequently crop up in his speech".

But Le Monde(4) denies that Mitterrand was undergoing psychoanalysis. According to the French first national newspaper, the book is a fiction. Yet, it acknowledged that Magoudi has interviewed Mitterrand in the 80s in the Elysée with the journalist Pierre Jouve, for the Journal Esprit as well as for the TV. The book was written partially out of that interview, which had nothing to do with therapy.

Mitterrand's role in building the new Europe didn't stop him from doing a fair bit of building back home, as well. In Paris, a city of monuments and museums built by kings, there are now some of Mitterrand’s making, including the Great Arch, the Paris Opera, the Pyramid of the Louvre and the Great Library.

The great projects, as they are known, were matched only by Mitterrand’s grand gestures. In 1988, he invited all living Nobel Prize laureates to Paris to discuss the world's problems. In 1992, he made a much-publicized stroll through the streets of Sarajevo, embattled capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Secrecy and Eavesdropping

Mitterrand certainly left this world taking with him some of his most cherished secrets, which made of his presidency a subject of many controversies.

Thus, he was well known for taking advice from "unconventional" advisers throughout his presidency. A book published three years ago claimed he made crucial policy decisions based on his tarot card readings.

Mitterrand also hid his cancer battle from the French people for 15 years. He was diagnosed in 1981 (the year of his victory) but it only became public after his death in January 1996.

Another well guarded secret concerns his affair with Mrs Anne Pingeot with whom he had a daughter: Mazarine.

When Mazarine Pingeot turned six in 1981, her father, Francois Mitterrand, was elected president of France. At school, Mazarine would boast that her father was the president. Her teacher called her mother and warned her that the girl needed counseling because of her continuous lies.

As far as the people of France knew, Mr. Mitterrand was not Mazarine’s father. The girl's mother, working at the Orsay Museum, was Mr. Mitterrand’s longtime lover. Mr. Mitterrand had a wife, Danielle, whom he had known since World War II, with whom he had raised two sons.

Little Mazarine lived a quiet life. Once she was old enough to understand the situation, she stopped telling people about her father. Mr. Mitterrand, who was 58 years old when the girl was born, was devoted to her.

The French media respected the president's private life, but Mr. Mitterrand also used the intelligence service to keep reports about his daughter from coming out. However, when a magazine published a photo of father and daughter coming out of a restaurant together in 1994, her existence was not hidden anymore.

The big controversy about Mitterand’s secrets was however not much connected to the private life of the president than it was actually to the private life of some French citizens.

From 1982 to 1986, Mitterrand established an “anti-terror cell” installed as a service of the president of the republic. This was a fairly unusual setup, since such law enforcement missions against terrorism are normally left to the French National Police and Gendarmerie, run under the cabinet and the Prime Minister, and under the supervision of the judiciary. The cell was largely made from members of these services, but it bypassed the normal line of command and safeguards.

Most markedly, it appears that the cell, under illegal presidential orders, obtained wiretaps on journalists, politicians and other personalities who might have been an impediment for Mitterrand’s personal affairs, especially those who could reveal the situation of Mazarine and her mother. The illegal wiretapping was unveiled in 1993 by the newspaper Libération; the case against members of the cells went to trial in November 2004.

Admiral Pierre Lacoste, the former head of the DGSE – French Intelligence Service-, confirmed in July 2005 that Mitterrand had personally authorized the bombing of the Green peace ship Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland harbor, New Zealand, on July 10, 1985. The vessel was preparing to protest against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific when the explosion sank the ship, killing photographer Fernando Pereira. The New Zealand government called the bombing the country's first terror attack.


Nevertheless, whatever the reproaches some people might address to Mitterrand and his era, he has certainly branded his time with an undeniable mark, called Mitterrandia by both his admirers and contenders. As French senator and ex-minister Michel Charasse recently observes in an interview “there is a huge intellectual and political vacuum that has to be filled up. François Mitterrand was the latest ‘Grand’ formed at the resistance and liberation. After his death, we entered the time of more ordinary men. Ordinary men are boring and not very thrilling”(5)- a sentence that would not have displeased Mitterrand, indeed. In a movie about his life, which was projected in Paris in February 2005 (6), the old leader told a journalist: “after me, you know, there will be only accountants”. It was his way of coming to terms with posterity.


1 Le Monde, 7/1/2006.

2 The Daily Mirror, Thatcher in 'Threat of Nuke Argies’, 5 January 2006.

3 The Sunday Times, The sphinx and the curious case of the iron lady’s H-Bomb, nov.20.2005

4 Le Monde, Ali Magoudi dans l'inconscient de Mitterand, 25/11/05.

5 Le Figaro, Michel Charasse : « après sa mort on est entré dans l’ère des hommes ordinaires », 7/1/2006.

6 Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars, directed by : Robert Guediguian, with Michel Bouquet as François Mitterrand.