Francois Mitterrand -- Last 'King of France' -- Says Au Revoir as French President for the Last 14 Years, He Has Been a Larger-Than-Life Leader
Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 Gaulle.
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 French politics."
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 years later.
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 presidential neglect.
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 government.
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 that moment."
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. …