Mitterrand Rising

6 minute read
James Graff | Paris

As he is ushered to his official car, the old man turns and flashes a Delphic smile. “I’m the last of the grand presidents,” he says matter-of-factly. “After me, there will be no others in France.” Thus spoke François Mitterrand, obsessed with his place in history, to a young writer in May 1995 — the final month of his 14 years at the Elysée. The writer went on to put those words into the script of Le Promeneur du Champs de Mars (Walker on the Champs de Mars), director Robert Guédiguian’s spare, focused film about Mitterrand’s final years — in which the President dictates his memoirs and hones his legacy while wracked with the prostate cancer that will end his life.

As if to prove Mitterrand’s point, the movie opens this week in a France that seems more awash than ever in the ambiguous legacy of its last Socialist President. Mitterrand’s image dominated a Parisian courtroom last week as it finished taking testimony about a vast wiretapping scheme driven in part by Mitterrand’s personal obsessions. His illness, first diagnosed in 1981, the year he took power, resurfaces in lurid detail this week in a book — written by his personal doctor, Claude Gubler — originally banned by a French court in 1996 for breaching the President’s medical privacy. His foreign policy, often considered driven by small-minded jealousies, is presented in a far more positive light by several historical works due out soon. Even his fatherhood is getting another airing: later this month Mitterrand’s out-of-wedlock daughter, novelist Mazarine Pingeot, will publish Bouche Cousue (Not a Word, or literally Mouth Sewn Shut), which her publisher describes as an “extremely literary and very intimate” account in diary form of her relationship with a father who was devoted to her in private but couldn’t acknowledge her publicly.

Taken together, the various releases demonstrate the deep shadow Mitterrand still casts over France nine years after his death. “He remains fascinating to people of the left and the right,” says ex-Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, a key Mitterrand adviser and current president of the Institut François-Mitterrand, an institution devoted to preserving Mitterrand’s memory. “Sixty years of political life during very troubled political times, his move from the right to the left, his intellectual authority, psychological strength, and stupendous culture — it all adds up to a romantic figure.”

Albeit a highly compromised one. The man who reinvented the French left, and ultimately engineered its triumph in May, 1981, has always inspired harsh polemics. He was the hope of the left, but also the bourgeois prince who sold it out; the valiant resistance fighter, but also the Vichy regime bureaucrat. He was lauded as a friend of the Jewish people, but never denounced his long friendship with Vichy police chief Réné Bousquet, who helped round up Jews for deportation at the notorious Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris.

And in Paris’ highest court last week, Mitterrand came off as a paranoid liar. Since last November, 12 former officials and police officers have been on trial, accused of wiretapping at least 150 people during the initial years of his presidency. The court showed a tape filmed by two Belgian television journalists who interviewed the President in March 1993. The interview was essentially over as soon as they asked about the boiling scandal over the wiretapping. “The Elysée listens to nothing,” Mitterrand said before excoriating the journalists. “I didn’t think one would stoop to such a vile level. Merci, this [interview] is over.”

In fact, testimony presented in the case alleges that the wiretapping unit was set up at Mitterrand’s request and that he selected some of the targets — notably journalist Edwy Plenel, who was ousted as managing editor of Le Monde last November, and Jean-Edern Hallier, a writer who had once threatened to reveal the existence of Mitterrand’s daughter Mazarine. A judgment in the case is expected in the coming months. “After all the court has heard, Mitterrand’s appearance was disastrous,” says Marie-Amélie Lombard-Latune, who covers the trial for the daily Le Figaro. “Here was this almost monarchic figure, deeply annoyed by the journalists’ question, lying so shamelessly.”

Yet Mitterrand’s nobler initiatives are in the air these days as well, particularly in foreign policy. Next week sees the publication of the French edition of an award-winning work by German historian Tilo Schabert, the result of three years of unprecedented access to Elysée files and personnel in the early ’90s. His conclusion: far from stalling the reunification of Germany, as some British and American scholars have argued, Mitterrand saw it as inevitable. His main concern was that a reunified Germany be firmly anchored in a unified Europe. “One can discuss Mitterrand’s ethics or morals, but no one can discount his absolute belief in European unity,” says Schabert, author of Mitterrand et la Réunification Allemande. University of Nantes historian Frédéric Bozo, whose broader work on Mitterrand’s foreign policy at the end of the cold war will be released in May, also comes to a positive judgment. “As a politician he could be sneaky, but as a diplomat he was straightforward, coherent and underestimated,” he says. “In that he’s like Nixon.”

As with Nixon, the years out of office and finally death have a way of dousing polemical fires. “When people see this film, all the controversies about Mitterrand tend to shrink away,” says director Guédiguian, a communist. “It talks about the legend, about the King. The time is far enough away now for us to begin to see him as a whole.” Guédiguian’s main character, crafted in stunning depth and complexity by actor Michel Bouquet, is known simply as le Président; he smiles more and projects less personal authority than the original, but shares the same obsession with history, the same mix of pride and vulnerability. “It is Guédiguian’s Mitterrand, not mine,” says Védrine. “But it’s not a false picture.”

In some other country, perhaps, Mitterrand would carry more of the heavy Nixonian baggage, and perhaps some day he will. For now, the French regularly rank him just after Charles de Gaulle in their catalogue of favored Presidents, even if his political legacy remains unclear. “The left’s problem is that there is no Mitterrand doctrine, like the one De Gaulle left behind,” notes Dominique Reynié , a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris. Even on furthering European unity, a Mitterrand mainstay, his party is now divided. And the world is too interconnected, the state’s power too constrained by the market, for any French president to adopt quite the same air of sovereignty Mitterrand made his own. He would be delighted that untangling his legacy will be a task for generations.

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