Mitterrand, François Maurice

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Mitterrand, François Maurice

François Maurice Mitterrand (fräNswä´ mōrēs´ mētəräN´), 1916–96, French political leader, president of France, 1981–95. Initially a supporter of Pétain's Vichy government during World War II, he joined the Resistance in 1943. Mitterrand served in the National Assembly (1946–58) and senate (1959–62). As head of a small left-of-center party, he held ministerial posts in many cabinets from 1947 until 1958, when Charles de Gaulle became president. Mitterrand later merged his party with several other leftist groups, leading them into a unified Socialist party, of which he became (1971) head.

An outspoken opponent of de Gaulle, Mitterrand ran against him for president in 1965, winning 45% of the vote in a runoff election. In 1974 he again ran for president as the Socialist party candidate, but he lost by a small margin to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. By 1978 the Socialists were the most popular party in France, and in 1981, Mitterrand became president with the support of the Communist party, which he then marginalized.

Mitterrand's program of bank and insurance company nationalization, wage raises, and decentralization did not stem unemployment and inflation. Mitterrand tried to develop a more conservative program, known as "economic realism," replacing Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, a long-time Socialist, with Laurent Fabius, a pragmatic economist. Internationally, Mitterrand sought to strengthen the European Community (now the European Union) and pursue an independent foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa. When the Socialists lost the National Assembly in 1986, Mitterrand retained the presidency but had to work with the right-wing government of Premier Jacques Chirac. This so-called cohabitation ended in triumph for Mitterrand, who won reelection in 1988.

After the Socialists regained control of the assembly (1988), Mitterrand appointed Michel Rocard as premier. Rocard followed Mitterrand's centrist politics, but in 1991 Mitterrand replaced Rocard with Edith Cresson, who became France's first woman premier. After a poor showing by the Socialists in local elections, Cresson resigned (1992) and was replaced by Pierre Bérégovoy. Following a conservative victory in the 1993 legislative elections, Mitterrand appointed Édouard Balladur, a Gaullist, as premier, and he was again forced into cohabitation.

Gravely ill with cancer, Mitterrand retired in 1995, having served longer than any other French president. His personal popularity, pragmatism, and resourcefulness were key to his long and successful tenure in office. Mitterrand's accomplishments as president included a greater internationalism, particularly improved relations with other European nations, and a steady domestic decentralization. His most lasting legacy, however, may lie not in politics but in the multifaceted revitalization of Paris, especially the "Grands Travaux" [great works], a spate of important new urban projects undertaken during his presidency with his active encouragement.

See his posthumously published (1996) Memoires interrompues [interrupted memoirs] and De l'Allemagne, de la France [of Germany, of France]; P. Péan's biography of his early years, A French Youth (1994); D. McShane, François Mitterrand: A Political Odyssey (1982); C. Nay, The Black and the Red: François Mitterrand and the Story of an Ambition (1987); J. W. Friend, Seven Years in France (1989); W. Northcutt, Mitterrand: A Political Biography (1991); A. Cole, François Mitterrand: A Study in Political Leadership (1994); S. Baumann-Reynolds, François Mitterrand: The Making of a Socialist Prince in Republican France (1995).

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