On a cold dark November night in 1988, Francois Mitterrand addressed a huge crowd in front of the Pantheon in Paris. It was a ceremony to transfer to that national Valhalla the mortal remains of Jean Monnet, the founder of the European Union. For some statesmen it might have been a routine act of homage with electoral overtones. For Mitterrand, it was a genuine tribute - a confirmation that both men saw Europe as vital to France's future.
"I have never forgotten", Mitterrand wrote in his diary a few years earlier, "the enthusiasm of the early days: the European Congress at The Hague in 1947, the Home Congress in 1948, the passion that enflamed us all. To reconcile France and Germany in a greater community: we reacted rapidly then, two years after the death of Hitler and the collapse of his Reich."
Franco-German reconciliation was Mitterrand's prime European objective, as much as it was Monnet's. He always remembered how his grandparents wept at any mention of France's defeat by Prussia at Sedan in 1870. Born in one Franco-German war and marked, equivocally, by another, he had every reason to back the uniting of Europe; and if he voted against the European Defence Community, that was only because he still feared that it might revive German military strength.
He was never, in fact, as single-minded as Monnet. His enemies called him Florentine, thinking of long knives and Renaissance alleys, and his record on Europe included scepticism and disillusion as well as hope. Far more than Monnet, he saw the United States as both a safeguard and a potential danger. American-based multinationals, he once remarked, were so dominant that "the real capital of Europe is Washington".
Long before talk of a single currency became general, he confided to his diary: "The Americans have dominated by their currency the Europe they liberated by their weapons. The Europeans will free themselves if they can create a currency of their own."
The Elysee chronicles of Mitterrand's talkative aide Jacques Attali, published verbatim but not perhaps to be taken as such, are full of presidential side-swipes at American presumption - including, ludicrously, envy of the terrestrial globe that Reagan kept in his office. When Mitterrand returned to Paris after a visit to Washington, he told Attali to get him one like it. To their joint discomfiture, no French maker could supply one off the shelf. So Mitterrand ordered 20 to be specially made, one for himself and the rest to be donated to visiting heads of state.
But if there was a touch of Gaullism in Mitterrand's attitude, he never expressed it in Gaullist, nationalist terms. He knew, as Monnet did, that only a united Europe could aspire to anything like equality with America; and at times of disillusion with progress in Europe his uneasiness again centred on Germany. "Germany grows as Europe shrinks," he wrote in 1973.
It was a worry that surfaced again at the prospect of Germany's unification. But meanwhile, in October 1982, he had met the newly elected Chancellor, Helmut Kohl. Almost the first words that Kohl uttered, according to the Pepys-like Attali, were both ominous and assuring. "Make no mistake," said Mitterrand's stately visitor, "I am the last pro-European German chancellor." His uncle and his elder brother, he added, had been killed in the two world wars. Like Germans and many Frenchmen, he had visceral reasons for seeking Franco-German entente.
Quite clearly, Kohl and Mitterrand saw eye to eye on Europe, despite their coming from opposite ends of the political-party spectrum. …