Francois Mitterrand died as he had lived: with supreme timing and vicious political irony. At 11am, foreign journalists were assembled at the Elysee Palace for the solemn occasion of Jacques Chirac's New Year press conference. Instead of his personal message for the coming year, President Chirac found himself conveying the news of his predecessor's demise. His greetings were postponed for a week; the journalists, with a proper sense of priorities, rushed to the phones.
For Mitterrand's death yesterday, eight months and a day after leaving office, took France by surprise, if only because it was so long in coming. He died at 8.30am in the apartment that served as his office under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Hundreds of people gathered outside the building in Avenue Frederic Le Play after the news was announced, some to pay their respects, some to watch celebrities come and go. 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.
Mitterrand was working on a new book: not his memoirs - he had spurned such cliches of past leaders - but a volume of history that was the product of his other life, as stylish writer and versatile intellectual.
Mortality, though, had accompanied Mitterrand for so many months that his dying had come to seem a permanent state. Few national leaders can have expressed themselves so publicly about their death or made such elaborate preparations for their posthumous image. Ever since the first reports that he was suffering from cancer of the prostate, almost two years before he completed his 14 years as President, his every public utterance seemed stamped with the knowledge of his, as it transpired, not so imminent demise.
He seemed to withdraw consciously from the routine of the presidency, taking a loftier, more detached view of himself and his role. His withdrawal was all the easier because the National Assembly was now (1993) in the hands of the right, and because the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, ran the government with just the right amount of autonomy and "correct" deference to the President.
Details of Mitterrand's illness and his treatment became widely known and published - suspended awkwardly between France's tight laws on personal privacy and the political issue that a leader's health inevitably becomes. Magazine readers knew that he had changed doctors, that a new (and very expensive) treatment by a Swiss doctor had made the pain bearable, allowing him to work on, that he had dabbled in alternative medicine.
In interviews, he expatiated on his attitude to death. He paraded a highly intellectual agnosticism, logically not able to believe in a God but emotionally unable to embrace atheism.
He appeared on French television's prestigious books programme in April, to be interviewed by the doyen of presenters, Bernard Pivot, about his recent book, a series of "conversations" with the anti-Nazi campaigner Elie Wiesel. With quivering hands and a facial pallor like a death mask that shocked viewers, he mused on matters of life and death.
Asked then for his favourite word, Mitterrand said: "Life". Asked what he would like God to say to him when he met him, he said: "If there is a God . . . I would like him to say 'So, now you know' - and I hope he would say 'Welcome'."
One point of the book collaboration with Elie Wiesel, though, and a reason perhaps why he agreed to appear on television despite his weakness and pain, was to "set the record straight", about his relations with the Vichy regime and his continued association, if not friendship, with some of its leading players. …