Wednesday, January 10, 1996

François Mitterrand - a personal memoir

What was it like meeting the former French president, who died last Monday? Our Paris Bureau Chief followed his career for 15 years and remembers.

On the first day that they learned of François Mitterrand's death, Parisians couldn't quite decide where to go and pay their last respects. At first people streamed to 22, rue de Bièvre, the narrow Fifth Arrondissement lane just on the south side of the Seine from Notre Dame, where the president had owned a house since the mid-70s: during the 14 years of his reign, rue de Bièvre had been increasingly restricted, then closed off to cars and passers-by, until iron gates had actually been erected at each end of the street, guarded 24 hours a day by police.

And yet those in the know - many people, as it turned out - chose to take their red roses and their private or political grief to another part of Paris, still on the Left bank, but in the infinitely more bourgeois surroundings of the Champ-de-Mars next to the Eiffel Tower, 9, rue Frédéric-Le Play, where the ex-president, it was officially known, had his "offices" after he left the Élysée last 17 May 1995. In fact the 450-square-meter flat loaned by the State was both office and home to Mitterrand, where he slept and entertained his longtime mistress Anne Pingeot and their 20-year-old daughter Mazarine.

Mitterrand died on the morning of Monday 8 January: he had been very weak for several weeks that had included a last trip to his beloved Upper Nile at Aswan, with Mazarine and Mrs. Pingeot, in mid-December, then proper Christmas celebrations at his Latche country home with his wife of 51 years, Danielle, their two sons Gilbert and Jean-Christophe, their grand-children and close friends. He woke up around 7:00 am, his doctor Jean-Pierre Tarot reported, said that he was very tired, and would try to get some more sleep. From that sleep he never awoke.

For a few hours the fiction that Mitterrand had died "at his desk" was maintained. TV crews were sent to interview passers-by, local shopkeepers and mourners to both rue de Bièvre and rue Frederic Le Play. This duplicate commemoration was in a way emblematic of François Mitterrand's entire life, spent on both sides of the political divide, of arguments, of policies, of families and friends, and ultimately of history.

This is why it is so difficult for anyone who crossed his path, even without being completely engulfed by his powerful personal charm - which he wielded with consummate artistry - to think back of him with anything approaching objectivity. I met François Mitterrand about half a dozen times between 1980 and 1994; before that, as a history student and a sometime member of the Jeunesses Socialistes, I hawked the Programme Commun, which he had drawn up to rebuild the Left in 1972, with complete conviction.

I would like to be able to say that at the time, aged 17, but coming from a family with deep-rooted Socialist traditions - my grand-father was a co-founder, with Jean Jaurès, of the SFIO, the ancestor of the Socialist party, in 1905, and later served as a minister in Leon Blum's Popular Front Cabinet - I had understood Mitterrand's cunning strategy to circumscribe and enfeeble the strong, neo-Stalinian French Communist party in an electoral alliance. The truth is that I bought the official line that the Communists were our friends and comrades. With longer memories, my parents - who unflinchingly voted Socialist at every possible election throughout their lives - muttered things about Kravchenko (Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag" was only published the following year) and about the 1920 Congrès de Tours (when the SFIO split between its Bolsheviks, the SFIC Communists, and its Mensheviks, the tattered remnants of the SFIO).

François Mitterrand, who himself had an extremely long and encyclopaedic memory, built his entire career on other people's forgetfulness, and on his acute instinct of how far he could blur the borders between truth and falsehood, ideal and manipulation. I first met him following his successful campaign of 1981. He had rebuilt the French Left and was about to carry it to power, a phenomenon of such magnitude in France that for the first months of Socialist rule in 1981, tens of thousands of people, not all very rich, frantically (and illegally) would be sending their money abroad rather than leave it to be appropriated by "the Reds". This panic was matched on the other side by the exhilaration of the campaign's last few weeks. From an old Fourth Republic warhorse with a few unsavoury episodes to his name - the faked assassination attempt in the Observatoire gardens in 1959, the Francisque decoration which he'd been awarded by the Vichy regime (but we all chose to believe he had had to accept it as a cover for his "Resistance work") - Mitterrand was transformed into the Left's Great White Hope.

He enjoyed it tremendously. He arrived late at practically every rally, having sometimes diverted the press pack to admire a little Romanesque church he knew in the area (he knew many), or invited some of the pundits of note (Jean Daniel of Le Nouvel Observateur, Jean Lacouture of Le Monde) to dinner at a gastronomic restaurant while the faithful were kept waiting in a state of frenzy with endless speeches by lesser figures of the party. He could do no wrong. Almost every journalist following the campaign had horror stories of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's hauteur, aristocratic pretensions, and his staff's iron control on the press, especially TV.

French political campaigns traditionally end 24 hours before the day of the vote, "to let people make up their minds in peace". Since elections are always held on a Sunday, this meant that Mitterrand's last campaign plane trip before his election took place on Friday 7 May, 1981 - a crazy dash from Épinal to Strasbourg to Rennes, crisscrossing France in private planes the cost of which none of us yet thought of questioning. Mitterrand used to chat with reporters, and that evening, he walked down the aisle to sit next to me, asking me questions about my grandfather, whose job as Colonies Minister he had taken over in the Fifties. I was so petrified with awe that I didn't know what to answer except a few platitudes. Smiling, he switched to literature and asked me if I'd read William Styron's "Sophie's Choice". I had, I said, and thought Styron had stolen the idea from the 1967 novel by Yael Dayan (Moshe Dayan's daughter), "Death had two Sons". This was apparently the wrong thing to say: Mitterrand had loved "Sophie's Choice". He suddenly switched off the charm. I had not passed. With a few words, he was on his feet again to chat with someone else, and what I remember most was the switching off bit - the way this incredible warmth, of which I was not consciously aware, suddenly vanished, leaving me feeling an abject, stupid failure. Later I also realised how addicted one could become to that warmth.

Partly by chance, I stood less than a yard from Mitterrand at half past six on Sunday, 10 May, 1981, when, after an interminable rainy afternoon of feverish waiting in the small lounge of the Hôtel du Vieux-Morvan in his constituency of Château-Chinon, an aide made his way through the swelling crowd and touched his arm, announcing that all the polls coincided - even though the voting booths in France's larger cities would only close at 8:00 pm, he had won the prize that had eluded him for so long. He was in the middle of a typical Mitterrand pose - taking his time to explain the vagaries of the Morvan climate to a pretty girl, this time the blonde correspondent from "Stern" magazine. For at least two full minutes he went on talking as if nothing had happened, about granite hills and how the clouds from the north-west were stopped by the heights. Then he looked around and asked: "Ca y est? Ca ne peut plus changer?" A pause. "Bon. Maintenant, les ennuis commencent."

Everybody remembers the amazing celebrations of that Sunday night, the hundreds of thousands dancing in the streets on Place de la Bastille and in so many cities in France. For years the election celebrations had taken place in les beaux quartiers, Gaullists in their nice Peugeots and Citroens driving up the Champs-Elysées tooting their horns, singing the Marseillaise and waving tricolours. This time the flags were red, the cars were beat-up 2CVs and 4Ls, and the music was rock. I don't think I was quite rid of the elation of that night when I saw Mitterrand again at his inauguration, on 21 May 1981, at the Élysée Palace.

Giscard, a sore loser, had stretched the 10-day period the outgoing president is allowed to stay to its utter limit. He greeted Mitterrand on the porch, had an insultingly short 15-minute meeting with him in his first floor corner office (which Mitterrand relinquished to Jacques Attali, preferring to settle in the central study that had been De Gaulle's own office) and decided, in a textbook display of everything that was wrong about his political and psychological instincts, not to drive but to walk out into the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, hoping perhaps to be applauded, or even pitied. Of course the crowd come to watch Mitterrand booed him mercilessly. We inside only saw this later on TV; we were waiting for that wonder of wonders, Mitterrand arriving at the Élysée for the first time.

Symbol was piled upon symbol. The 80-year-old Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose photographs of the first 1936 "congés payés" holidaymakers became the emblem of that era, was snapping away with his little Leica. The former Fourth Republic PM, Pierre Mendes France, the man who epitomized honesty and integrity for the entire Left, was there too: PMF was about the same age as Cartier-Bresson but a lot less sprightly - in fact his cheeks were gray and the lines on his face deeply-etched. Mitterrand, in a deliberate gesture, went directly to him when he entered the Élysée Salle des Fetes, and kissed him on both cheeks. It was said later that Mendes cried; certainly he was very moved. None of us, at the time, questioned the irony of the shortest-serving great leader of the Left - his high principles had caused him to always refuse compromise - being embraced, and, in a way trotted forward as the ideal alibi by the longest-serving politico of the Fourth Republic, who'd switched alliances and allegiances with enough brio that he took part in practically every Cabinet between 1946 and 1958.

Much later, another irony would find itself superimposed onto this dream publicity shot, when Mitterrand's Vichy past emerged - the sheer gall of his kissing the man whose luminous interview was at the centre of Marcel Ophuls's "The Sorrow and The Pity", the epoch-making documentary that opened the eyes of an entire generation to the realities of ordinary collaboration (and was banned from French TV for 14 years). In the film, Mendes had told of his being ostracised by fellow-officers in North Africa before being deported to be tried in Clermont-Ferrand by collaborationist judges, in front of a courtroom packed with Action Française goons. But we all believed, and would for quite some time, that Mitterrand had been a Résistance hero; it would be long before some of us would realise that those who vouched for his impeccable conduct (and he for theirs) were all his Angoulême school mates and Fascist-leaning law school friends of the Thirties.

Soon after the inauguration, Mitterrand organised a luncheon at the Élysée for the 20 or so reporters who'd followed his campaign regularly. The mood was light-hearted, the president was approachable and jocular, the food was excellent; under the white-and-gilt rococo panelling of the downstairs dining-room, we all, Mitterrand himself included, perhaps, still felt we were only visiting. Out of all the light, exhilarated banter I do remember the steel in him showing in two occasions, though. The new "free" FM-band radio stations were mentioned; at the time, they were not allowed to carry advertising. I argued that they should. "It's better to know where exactly the money comes from." (God I must have sounded naive.) "No," said Mitterrand, "let Radio Tour Eiffel (the Mairie de Paris, i.e. the Chirac FM station) cost them the maximum." His implacable "que çà leur coûte très cher" still rings in my ears. It was, I realised later, instructive. (The other occasion had to do with liberalising the money markets; Mitterrand and his chief of staff, later Minister for Justice Michel Vauzelle, were against it. I felt pretty silly again, although I would, later, be vindicated.)

There were other meetings later: press conferences, foreign trips, political rallies, and a long but rather disappointing interview for ELLE magazine on the eve of the 1988 campaign. Mitterrand, who was about to embark on a vote-pleasing discourse on equal rights, more or less shot down his argument in flames before he started by telling me and our photographer, as we entered his upstairs private apartments: "I'm sorry I can't offer you anything to drink, my wife isn't here." (I wanted to start my piece with the anecdote, but French ELLE vetoed it.) Still, after two years of uneasy cohabitation with Chirac, marked by a series of petty battles which the wily old Élysée householder usually won, Mitterrand looked a lot better than the Right. A few days after our interview, he gave his last campaign rally at Le Bourget, one radiantly sunny afternoon, in front of some 40,000 people, with a rousing hour-long speech in beautiful French, the barrister in him blending with echoes of great political speakers of the past. He was just way above the rest, and I duly voted or him.

And then of course it all started coming tumbling down: les affaires, the Péchiney scandal, the irresistible elevation of Bernard Tapie. Mitterrand treated them with contempt - contempt seemed to have become his overriding sentiment, together with an arrogance fueled by the courtiers gathered around him. It was as if, not having to campaign for reelection again, he had given up the seduction game - except when it pleased him. I remember the 1989 Bicentennial celebrations, and the Élysée garden-party that day, with the 10,000 or so guests trying to touch the President as if he were a faith-healer, like the people outside Versailles used to wait and be touched by the King. The mantle of Louis XIV is tempting for any French leader with hubris, and Mitterrand didn't lack it. We had a great Bastille Day party, just as we were given a great Opera, a great Pyramid, a great Arch, et caetera.

I came peripherally across the track of another, quite different François Mitterrand in 1991, while researching a story - which The European broke - on the cosmetics company L'Oréal, disclosing that it still employed a war criminal and noted collaborationist, Jacques Corrèze, as head (and key shareholder) of its American sister company, Cosmair. L'Oréal's founder Eugène Schueller had given Mitterrand a job and a salary in 1946 (as editor of the magazine "Votre Beauté"). Schueller had funded the Cagoule, a fascist group, in the Thirties, to which Robert Mitterrand, the president's brother, had belonged. He had also funded one of the nastier pro-nazi collaborationist parties during the occupation, the RNP. Robert Mitterrand married Corrèze's niece Edith. Schueller's daughter Liliane (still today the majority L'Oréal shareholder, and France's richest woman) had married a school friend of Mitterrand's, André Bettencourt, supposedly a Résistant - but it turned out he had been certified a Résistant by Mitterrand's own shadowy organisation. (Bettencourt had in fact written shrilly pétainiste articles for a German Paris-based Propagandastaffel publication during the war.)

And still it never occurred to me that Mitterrand himself was at the heart of this tangled web - I remember being reassured by a remark he made after our story broke (complete with damning Bettencourt quotes) at a small Élysée dinner-party attended by a friend. "Bettencourt made some mistakes when he was very young, but he made up for them later on in the war," the President said dismissively, and being told of this, I remember feeling reassured.

It was, of course, illusory. Even before Pierre Péan's biography disclosed Mitterrand's Vichy career in 1994, some of the President's more provocative moves came under public scrutiny. Every year, for instance, he had the local Préfet - the official representative of the Republic! - lay a wreath on Pétain's grave. During his customary 1992 Bastille Day interview, he flatly refused to acknowledged any French responsibility in the rounding up and deportation of Jews by Vichy (75,000 died). As René Bousquet, the former secretary general of the Vichy police, finally seemed about to be tried, Mitterrand took his defence in "casual" conversations with journalists - and it became obvious that they had remained friends throughout the years (Mitterrand even played a cruel joke on his chief aide of 11 years, Jacques Attali, who is Jewish, by once inviting him to lunch "with a few friends" at the restaurant Dodin Bouffant - then after the lunch telling him who exactly the perky elderly South-Western notable sitting next to him really was.) I later asked Attali how he accounted for Mitterrand's attitude and past, and he wouldn't answer - it was plain he had been and still is seduced by the president's charm and vast intelligence, but was wounded. ("Le silence est la forme ultime de la gratitude", he said with some elegance and not a little meaning recently.)

Ultimately, what I can't forgive François Mitterrand are less his youthful mistakes (although they were far more important than he let Péan on to) and certainly not his private life vagaries (though we'll be hearing in forthcoming weeks of two more illegitimate children, the youngest of whom is only 8) but the fact that towards the end of his mandate, and his life, he had become so convinced of his own powers that he tried the ultimate sleight of hand on the French people - make them accept that truth mattered little, and principles not at all. I shan't even go into the shady money dealings: the tip of that iceberg was revealed by investigative journalist Jean Montaldo, and I am equally certain that the huge amount of misappropriations by the president and his various family members will come out in a short time. This is the man who for PR purposes hijacked the funeral of his former PM Pierre Bérégovoy, an honest man goaded beyond endurance to suicide, and whose anguished telephone calls he had refused to take for several weeks.

When the Péan book came out Mitterrand gave a nauseating interview to TV pundit (and state channel chief) Jean-Pierre Elkabbach: half of it was devoted to brushing away the sins of Vichy as minor misdemeanours. Mitterrand - a law graduate! - said that as late as 1942, he wasn't aware of the "statut des Juifs", the stringent 1940 legal racial restrictions imposed on France's Jews. (He also said they applied to "foreign" Jews, a revealing slip of the tongue.) He justified his criticising of the maquis fighters among the Resistance organisations (how untidy!) The second half of the interview was devoted to long, stoic, beautifully phrased answers about his prostate cancer, designed to make him look good, noble, brave. The implications were clear: collaboration was OK because so many people were involved; while how could such a heroic character as he be criticised for anything he chose to do in his life? It was pure, unadulterated self-sanctification. He had been more or less in power (or a member of the Establishment) for over 50 years; he wrote elegant (if contrived) French; his friends were the best and the brightest of the Left bank; he practically walked on water. In front of my TV set, I simply felt sick.

There are no points awarded in France for plain honesty; and admitting to one's mistakes is laying yourself open to ridicule, to the very least. But a Socialist president elected to "Change Life" (his perhaps unrealistic campaign promise of 1981) and vowing his regime would restore "morality" - Robespierrian virtue! - to Giscard's France could have taken one or two steps in the right direction. Instead François Mitterrand elevated lying and betrayal to an art with such brilliance that if I were a believer, I would have little doubts as to where he is now - back to running that rather warm place down there. No wonder he was angry with Gorbachev for letting East Germany go.

© Copyright The European & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1996

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