Obituary: Francois Mitterrand

By Johnson, Douglas | The Independent (London, England), January 9, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Francois Mitterrand


Johnson, Douglas, The Independent (London, England)


There is a superstition in French political circles that no President of the Republic should attempt to serve two terms. Albert Lebrun had hardly been re-elected when he was overwhelmed by the catastrophe of 1940. General Charles de Gaulle was only a little more than halfway through his second mandate when his defeat in the referendum of 1969 caused him to resign. Francois Mitterrand is said to have hesitated over standing for re-election in 1988, but he rejected the advice of those who were superstitious just as he disregarded the pleas of those who urged him to stand aside and devote himself to his memoirs.

The result was that he became the first man in French history to be twice elected to the presidency by universal suffrage (de Gaulle was made president by a restricted electoral college in 1958), and on 10 May 1992 he was able to celebrate 11 years as president. He was thus the longest-serving non-royal head of state in France and the senior statesman of Europe. The occasion was typically Mitterrand. Some six weeks earlier his Socialist Party had suffered a crushing defeat in the regional elections. It was said that the President's political system was in ruins. His popularity ratings were at their lowest. Would he be able to finish his term of office in 1995? Yet within a short period of time, with a new prime minister, he had bounced back. At the height of the political storm, appropriately, he was seen in his favourite Paris bookshop reading a work of political fiction that described his own demise.

September 1992 provided another example of Mitterrand's desire to live dangerously. He had quite unnecessarily called a referendum to ratify the Maastricht treaty. As the date for the referendum, 20 September, approached, the opposition was seen to be unexpectedly powerful. There were continued rumours about the President's health, rumours which were in fact true. But, before he went into hospital, he appeared on television and in a lengthy debate impressed everyone with his alertness and vigour. Never had he been so persuasive and, although his victory on 20 September was the very narrowest, he was able to address the nation, speaking with difficulty, like a man who had just emerged from hospital, but who, again, was victorious. Commentators exhausted themselves to find words for someone as famous as Dracula for self-resurrections. He invariably survived.

As a sergeant in the army, Mitterrand was wounded and taken prisoner in 1940. But his courage in battle, near Verdun, had earned him the Croix de Guerre. In 1941 he escaped from his prisoner-of-war camp and found a job in Vichy looking after released French prisoners. For this he was decorated with the Petainist decoration of the Francisque. But he was also working for the Resistance. He left his Vichy job and assumed a new identity under the name "Morland". For this, too, he was decorated. Who else still young could emerge from the war with a Croix de Guerre, a Francisque and the Rosette de la Resistance?

Controversies arose over this wartime experience. In May 1981 General de Gaulle's son-in-law General de Boissieu resigned as the Grand Chancellor of the Legion of Honour because Mitterrand had collaborated with Vichy. Again, in September 1994, on the publication of Pierre Pean's book La Jeunesse de Mitterrand, the President responded with three interviews (one on television). It appeared that Mitterrand had been attracted to right-wing politics before 1940 and that, after he had escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and gone to Vichy in 1942, his activities and associations were more important than had been thought. In the Ministry of the Interior he was befriended and helped by Jean-Paul Martin, who worked closely with Rene Bousquet, his superior in charge of the Vichy police - Bousquet, who was responsible for ordering the round-up of some 13,000 Jews (including 4,000 children) at the Vel d'Hiv in Paris on 16 and 17 July 1942.

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