On the Death of Mitterrand

François Mitterrand was a provincial conservative and Catholic whose prewar political initiation was in rightist student circles, demonstrating in the Paris streets to mock democracy and attack the Popular Front. He flirted with fascism when that seemed first a choice, then a necessity, for France. His service to the wartime Pétainist government in Vichy evolved into a commitment to the Resistance, but this seems, in retrospect, less a decision of principle than an act of realism.

He served colonial repression as a government minister in the Fourth Republic, and was a lifelong enemy and rival of France’s colonial liberator, Charles de Gaulle. He adopted socialism in the 1960s in order to occupy the political space left open by the success of Gaullism.

He won the presidency in 1981 as an advocate of a lyrical and romantic version of socialism, which promised to change life itself for the French, but conspicuously failed to do so. He then became a social democrat, in fact if not in name. It was another act of realism—the act of a man who understood power and spent his life searching for it, and cultivating it when he had it.

He succeeded because of his patience, political subtlety, and talent for maneuver, but also because of his capacity to invent and reinvent himself. He was one of those remarkable men who are fundamentally artists, but with themselves and their careers the subject of their art.

He was like a painter in constructing his career, rubbing out the mistakes as he went, shifting the perspective as his vision shifted, always with the final creation in his mind: the completed image that would remain, and prevail, when he was finished. He was himself responsible for the mise en scène of his simultaneous burial in the provinces and memorial in Paris, with its revelation of the mother of his daughter, standing beside his wife at his grave. He had delivered the manuscript of his last book shortly before his death, and deliberately chose the moment to depart, terminating his medication.

Régis Debray says: “Where De Gaulle spoke of France, Mitterrand spoke of himself.” His final year in power, when his cancer was known, was passed in the narcissistic correction of his own history in the guise of revealing it. He gave interviews, offered public revelations and private—but publishable—confidences. He inspired his friends and even his enemies to undertake their own reconsiderations of his life and career, and the results seemed to satisfy him. Mr. Debray, who had been an ally and colleague of Mitterrand’s, notes that, in 1969, “De Gaulle ended thirty years of history with a press communiqué of two phrases, and left office without speaking to a journalist, without a moment before the television cameras….”

Francois Mitterrand unified the French left for the first time since the Popular Front, took it to power, and established it as a legitimate party of power. He also corrupted it by introducing into his coalition disreputable financiers and political adventures. He destroyed…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Subscribe for $1 an Issue

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.