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François Mitterrand: France's first socialist president who championed the people - and acted like a king

Arch-socialist, scheming opportunist, unapologetic womaniser – former president François Mitterrand continues to divide opinion 20 years after his death. Damien Black examines the faceted life of a great statesman

One president paid tribute to another on January 7, 2016, when François Hollande visited the grave of François Mitterrand in Jarnac, Charente, to mark the 20th anniversary of his death.

France’s second socialist president chose to honour its first with respectful silence rather than a eulogy, but perhaps no words were needed to convey the respect he must feel for his predecessor, whose shoes he has arguably struggled to fill.

Mitterrand was a man who polarised opinion. Love him or hate him, few would dispute that the former president – whom some have called the 'monarch of the Left' – made a lasting impact on France.

As head of state from 1981-1995, longer than any other ruler of France since Napoleon III, he abolished the death penalty, freed the media from state control, decriminalised homosexuality and introduced social security reforms that helped the poor.

Yet for all his reputation as a socialist politician who decried an increasingly monetised society and took his political cue from Marx, Mitterrand has not left everyone convinced that he served the national interest above his own.

Citing 2013 biographer Philip Short, American historian David A Bell described him as a “monstrous” narcissist, who would have made a good Renaissance cardinal, scheming and self-indulgent.

Critics have pointed to his monarchical style of presidency, accusing Mitterrand of being an arch-manipulator and comparing him to Louis XIV.

Supporters see him in a very different light and seem willing to overlook such faults.

“A narcissist? That isn’t the case at all,” said Jean Battut, a former colleague and biographer when asked if Mitterrand was a self-obsessed opportunist. “He was elected amid huge expectations in 1981. His greatest impulse was to give France the ability to be a great nation in Europe and have a dialogue with the world.”

While acknowledging that the former president had “an image of having a monarchical side”, Battut maintains this was more in keeping with the nature of the office dating back to the early 20th century.

He said: “He held France in very high regard and wanted it to fulfil its responsibilities in a way that was faithful to its historic image. So in this manner he had a lot of authority, which was accepted by everyone without restraint. This was perhaps why he had the manner of a king and people regarded him in this way.”

Florence Pavaux-Drory was Mitterrand’s press adviser in the 1970s and wrote an eponymously titled biography in 2010. She said: “François Mit­terrand was a man of convictions, his detractors wanted to make him out to be a self-interested Machiavelli. He would smile at that! As for being a narcissist, anyone who says that doesn’t know him.

“He was profoundly convinced he could improve the social condition of the people, and he buckled down to this task with social policies that are still relevant today.”

She cites the five-week paid holiday – now a sacrosanct fixture in the French working year – and introduction of the RMI benefits system in 1988, which guaranteed a minimum living standard.

Mitterrand had relatively humble origins: born to a bourgeois family in Jarnac in 1916, he initially approached dangerous political territory, flirting with the right-wing terrorist group Cagoule and working with the Vichy collaborationist regime during the Nazi occupation of France.

But his political convictions appear to have taken a decisive twist in 1943 when he joined the Resistance, serving courageously before seeking office post-war as a left-winger.

Shortly afterwards he propelled himself into the political spotlight when he secured a cabinet post under Paul Ram­adier’s socialist government in the late 1940s; it was a limelight that would remain shining down on him until he died in 1996.

But he would not fulfil his ultimate ambition until 15 years before his death, securing the presidency after an alliance with the far left.

In recalling this it seems not even Mit­ter­rand’s supporters can refute accusations of political opportunism. Mr Battut said: “He realised that the Left could get into power through an alliance with the Com­mun­ist Party, who represented 20-30% of the electorate.

“He resolved to ally himself with them for this reason only.”

And yet the success of this strategy is indisputable.

Ms Pavaux-Drory said: “The left had to unite to gain power. The Common Government Programme signed with the Communist Party and the Radical Leftist Movement in 1972 allowed him to anchor the Socialist Party to the [rest of] the left and capture young and working-class voters.”

However, it is Mitterrand’s years as president that have drawn some of the sternest criticisms levelled against him.

Mr Bell said after winning the presidency he “lost interest in social transformation, and concentrated on manipulating others around him; that commentators compared, with reason, to the court of Louis XIV”.

Its electoral usefulness ended, the Communist Party was fobbed off with control of four lesser ministries, and during the next decade its support fell to around 5% of voters.

Left-leaning voters were similarly disappointed: bowing to pressures of global recession and the loss of the National Assembly to Jacques Chirac’s right-wing coalition in 1986, Mitterrand presided over
austerity measures he called “a parenthesis in the history of socialism”.

The Marxist rhetoric of the 1970s was dropped for good.

Mitterrand’s private life was no less tumultuous than his political career. He had a long-term mistress, art historian Anne Pingeot, who was less than half his age when she became his lover at 22 in 1965.

This appears to have been tolerated by his wife, Danielle, who bore him three children and allegedly took an extra- marital lover of her own.

Nor did Mitterrand content himself with two partners – Mr Short’s biography notes he cheated on both women regularly and without any scruples.

Both Mr Battut and Ms Pavaux-Drory were reticent when asked about his colourful love life, and the media were just as softly spoken on the subject during his lifetime; this perhaps says as much about French society as it does about the man himself.

Mitterrand’s enjoyment of the essentials of life was not limited to sex, and he was a gourmet who prized quality over quantity. Mr Battut said: “He liked good food a lot – in particular he loved oysters. He also loved pork products but he ate very little – because he didn’t want to grow fat.”

Behind the statesmanlike façade a more humane, down-to-earth figure can also be discerned. Ms Pavaux-Drory said: “The first time I met him was in his Parisian home, where I’d been invited to dinner by his wife, Danielle. He was sitting in an armchair, his dachshund Lip on his lap. He put down the newspaper he was reading and looked at me smiling.

“He apologised and said he couldn’t get up to greet me because ‘if I move, he’s going to get angry!’.”

Such affable manners could also be accompanied by a spontaneous generosity.

Ms Pavaux-Drory recalls the story of a young man doing his military service at the Elysée who expressed a wish to go with the president on a trip to the US.

“He had lived in Boston and his fiancée was still there, working in the hotel where they had met before he returned home to do military service. François simply answered ‘yes’ without any more questions.”
Whichever side of the man one chooses to focus on – that of scheming politician, benefactor of the people, womaniser and bon vivant or benevolent employer – the legacy left by Mitterrand puts him in a rarified category, perhaps just a notch below the privileged tier occupied by the likes of Louis XIV or Napoleon Bonaparte.

It is a space Mitterrand shares with his great Rightist counterpart Charles de Gaulle.

Mr Battut said: “I think de Gaulle has his place as a liberator of France. But Mitter­rand remains the president who will stay in the memory as [giving France] an influence in the world through its culture and manner of presenting itself.”

Perhaps it can be said that Mitterrand’s lifestyle and image embodied the very country he sought to rule – complex, grandiose and inherently contradictory, balancing a love of worldly pleasures with a boundless intellectual curiosity.

Mr Battut said: “He gave that impression of personifying France. He knew there was something carnal in that; but on the other hand he was very attracted by churches and cathedrals. “He had a faith which didn’t express itself in the Catholic religion – he was agnostic, he didn’t know whether God existed: but he hoped.”

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