WHEN President Francois Mitterrand steps down from office later
this month, he will have presided over France for 14 years --
longer than his life-long rival, World War II hero Gen. Charles de
His last years, however, have been years in office, but not in
power. A stunning Socialist defeat in the 1993 parliamentary
elections and other political setbacks left him marginalized.
Nonetheless, President Mitterrand exits the national scene
larger than life.
"He will have been the last king of France," says Philippe
Moreau Defarges of the Paris-based French Institute of
International Relations. "There's no one of his stature left in
Along with De Gaulle, Mitterrand has been France's dominant
political figure since World War II. But the two political
adversaries followed very different careers.
While De Gaulle called on France to join the Resistance in 1940,
Mitterrand attached himself to the French government in Vichy --
only joining the Resistance after the Allies landed in Africa two
When France came close to a civil war in 1958 over its Algerian
colony, De Gaulle called for a national referendum to ratify a new
Constitution that would give the president emergency powers.
Mitterrand argued against it, however, later describing De Gaulle's
presidency -- after the new Constitution gave him added powers --
as a "permanent coup d'etat."
Similar to De Gaulle, however, Mitterrand leaves behind
monuments on a Pharaonic scale: the glass pyramid entrance to the
Louvre, the controversial $2 billion national library, and some 36
cultural centers outside Paris.
But the Socialist Party he brought back from oblivion in 1971 is
in disarray, demoralized by corruption scandals and years of
Because of this, the Socialist candidate in France's
presidential campaign, Lionel Jospin, rarely invoked Mitterrand's
name in seeking support. The Socialist years in power were not "the
results of a single man, Francois Mitterrand," he told Socialist
elected officials in Vincennes last month. The high and low points
resulted from a "collective movement," and Mr. Jospin claimed "the
right to inventory" the good and bad aspects of those years.
Mitterrand is not leaving to others the task of interpreting his
years in public life. He has written 14 books, including some 5,000
pages still in print. His most recent venture, "A Memoir in Two
Voices," published last month, tries to respond to blemishes on his
record -- including his activities as a publicist for the Vichy
No more questions
But many Socialists who gathered in the northwestern city of
Lievin last November to hear Mitterrand address activists, perhaps
for the last time, did not dwell long on the scandals of these
years. Some recalled with emotion the image of the new Socialist
president walking up the steps of the Pantheon on the first day of
his administration, a single rose in hand, to lay on the grave of
Jean Jaures, the founder of France's Socialist Party.
"It meant that Socialists, at last, had become part of the
Republic," said one young party activist. "I can still remember
His trip last week to the edge of the Seine River to express a
nation's sorrow for the murder of a young Moroccan by skinhead
youths struck a similar tone of reconciliation.
Mitterrand began his presidency with 110 propositions for
reform, most of which would be abandoned after the first three
years in office, when the Socialists' soaring budget deficits ran
up against world stock markets. …