1. Archive

FRANCOIS MITTERRAND: 1916-1996 // A "great figure' of France is gone

No one embodied the history, and vicissitudes, of France more in the past three-quarters of a century than Francois Mitterrand, its longest-serving president, who died Monday at the age of 79.

When he was born in the same small town of the French south where this week he will be buried, France was in the middle of a world war that even in victory was to cost it the best and brightest of a generation.

As a Paris student in the turbulent 1930s, the conservative Catholic boy from the country was to join some of the right-wing mobs in the streets.

As a sergeant on the Maginot line, he was wounded and captured in a world war in which, this time, a Nazi Germany conquered France.

On his third try he escaped, joining the collaborationist Vichy government of Marshal Henri Philippe Petain as an official handling the affairs of war prisoners and veterans. He received its highest decoration.

But at the beginning of 1943, he joined the French Resistance against the Germans and became one of its leading figures. After the liberation of Paris, Free French leader Charles de Gaulle put Mitterrand in charge of veterans affairs in his provisional government.

In the post-war Fourth French Republic that followed the defeated and discredited pre-war Third Republic, Mitterrand was a minister in no fewer than 11 of its governments.

And when de Gaulle emerged from an angry retirement in 1958 to form the Fifth French Republic and thus put an end to the musical chair politics unable to deal with the war in Algeria, Mitterrand was one of his principal adversaries.

In 1965, the one-time conservative boy from the country became leader of the French Socialists and ran against de Gaulle for the presidency. He lost, but by no means was it a landslide.

In 1974, he ran again, and again lost, to a conservative Valery Giscard d'Estaing. But in 1981, it was Giscard who lost and Mitterrand who won the presidency of a Fifth Republic he had so bitterly criticized as undemocratic.

Re-elected in 1988, Mitterrand was one of the first to serve two terms, until last May, when already fatally ill with a prostate cancer that three operations failed to end, he stepped down.

And this time it was Jacques Chirac, a disciple of de Gaulle, who won the presidency back for the conservatives. Chirac was one of the first Monday to hail his predecessor as a "great figure" of France.

For his critics, and even some friends, Mitterrand was "the Florentine," for his mastery of the hidden maneuver and quick thrust that gave him political victory and his opponents sometimes a political death.

He was also a philosopher king, a leader of learning and culture whose like the United States has not seen since Thomas Jefferson. Had Mitterrand not chosen politics, he would very likely have become one of France's major writers.

Where others were quick to react to this crisis or that, Mitterrand bided his time.

One of his favorite maxims from his boyhood in Cognac was "Give time to time," that is, give time enough time to work, as it eventually does in the aging of the classic French brandy.

But as incoming president in 1981, he nevertheless lost no time in changing the face of France.

First, he abolished the death penalty. Then he began nationalizing France's major enterprises and banks and put his own men at the head of them.

He also began decentralizing what since the time of Louis XIV, has been one of Europe's most centralized nations. He created regional assemblies that, while still far short of state and local governments in the United States, have real powers.

He imposed high taxes on big fortunes, ended the state monopoly on radio and television.

What all this brought him was a run on the franc, which had to be devalued. And having accomplished what he could, he made a U-turn to more conventional economics that put the fight against inflation and balanced budgets first.

But some also blamed it for the fact that after his 14 years in office as a Socialist, unemployment was more than 3-million, a million more than he found it.

While less suspicious of the U.S. domination of Europe than de Gaulle, Mitterrand was none the less the guardian of France's independent nuclear force as well as of its interests in farm and other trade, speaking with an independent voice that was uncomfortable for governments in Washington to hear.

But in 1983, he helped persuade Germany to allow the installation of U.S. medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. And during the gulf war in 1990-91, he was quick and strong in his support of the United States.

In foreign affairs, he was an innovator. The first French president to make an official visit to Israel, he used his speech to the Knesset to say that real peace would come only with an independent Palestinian state.

He quickly established a relationship with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that deepened the reconciliation between a France and Germany who had fought three wars in the previous 100 years.

In 1984, he and Kohl stood side by side on the great World War I battlement of Verdun to mark that reconciliation and their partnership in creating a more united Europe.

France and Germany have been its locomotive. And while at first France was the engineer, by the time Mitterrand stepped down last year, Germany was beginning to take over.

Maybe foreseeing this as inevitable, he appeared to be a foot dragger when Germany was pushing for reunification in 1990. But that is a role that ever afterward he denied.

One of the most emotional tributes to him Monday came from Kohl. As French and German plans for Europe appear to be diverging under President Chirac, Kohl may be looking back on Mitterrand with nostalgia as well as grief.

Under de Gaulle's Fifth Republic, the president chooses the prime minister, who is then responsible not only to him but to Parliament in the conduct of day-to-day affairs. And in 1986, Mitterrand faced a situation de Gaulle never envisaged.

Tired of his socialist policies, the French elected a conservative Parliament. Mitterrand had to chose a conservative prime minister, Chirac. When Chirac then tried to de-nationalize some of the industries Mitterrand had nationalized, he lost the struggle and finally resigned.

He lost again when he ran against Mitterrand in 1988, only to succeed him in 1995.

As president, Mitterrand was one of France's great builders, leaving behind a range of magnificent achievements and a few expensive failures.

The new Louvre museum is a jewel of restoration admired by the world. The new people's opera at the Place de la Bastille, say some, looks as though it might be just as well used for basketball or hockey.

The Grande Arche extends the famous axis running from the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, where the guillotine once stood, and the Arc de Triomphe to an otherwise undistinguished office complex called La Defense.

And the four massive towers of the Tres Grande Biblioteque de France, the still uncompleted new national library, looks over an enchanted interior garden no one can enter.

Even when France is running out of money for its generous social security system, there have been few complaints about the around $6-billion that all Mitterrand's projects have cost in a nation that is in love with its own greatness.

When it came to the war in the former Yugoslavia, Mitterrand was a big part of the European failure to deal with it, and France was almost the last to label its traditional ally Serbia as the aggressor.

While his sudden flight to Sarajevo in the summer of 1992 raised the hopes of its population that they would be saved from the merciless Serb bombardment, the Bosnians were quickly deceived.

France became the largest contributor to the misnamed U.N. Protection Force, but in lieu of a defense against aggression what Mitterrand offered turned out to be bandages for the victims. They would, said the critics, be fattened but not saved from being killed.

While he blamed the United States for not joining in the effort, his words were also an admission that the independent Europe he advocated was too weak to stand and act alone.

Mitterrand's final weeks and months in office were shadowed by a resurgence of the controversy about his own past, which so closely mirrored that of France.

Like de Gaulle, his great predecessor and one-time enemy, Mitterrand put the reconciliation and unity of France above digging into its World War II past.

He refused to apologize for his friendship with Rene Bousquet, a former head of Vichy police assassinated in 1993. Bousquet, he pointed out, was cleared by a French court after the war. Their friendship, never close, had ended before his part in deporting Jews was known.

Another collaborator of those days, Maurice Papon, who went on to become a de Gaulle minister, only now may come to trial for similar wartime charges. Mitterrand played down, if not delayed, both cases.

It was not "the Republic," both he and de Gaulle argued, that collaborated with Germany after the French defeat, not "the Republic" that deported Jews to the Nazi death camp, but an illegal, usurper Vichy regime.

"In 1940, there was a French state that was the regime of Vichy," Mitterrand said angrily. . . . "But it was not the Republic. So don't demand an accounting of the Republic. It has done what it should."

And again:

"They want the Republic to excuse itself through me. They want apologies from France. That would be cowardice on my part. I will never do it."

Only after Chirac took office, did he make the final admission of French guilt.

Leaving office last May, Mitterrand noted that "I begin a last stage whose length I know not. But it will not be long."

It lasted from May 17 until Monday. And with Mitterrand, the last major leader to fight in World War II, an era has ended.