Saturday 16 December 2017

Book review: How Francois Mitterrand shaped Europe

Former French President Francois Mitterand in Kerry in 1988. Picture: Tom Burke
Former French President Francois Mitterand in Kerry in 1988. Picture: Tom Burke

Charles Moore

I don't know why this extremely interesting book has not been noticed more. Perhaps people just cannot be bothered to read long works about non-English-speaking foreigners. But now that the French presidency (chiefly for farcical reasons) is back in the news, it is a good time to relearn the story of Francois Mitterrand.

He was the last man who could fill the role of his country's strange elective monarchy. His current successor wears his robes like a dwarfish thief.

In the 1974 presidential election, when Mitterrand was the unsuccessful Socialist candidate against Valery Giscard d'Estaing, his mistress, Anne Pingeot, who was 27 years younger than he, was pregnant by him. They named their daughter Mazarine, after Cardinal Mazarin, the 17th-Century French statesman.

Mitterrand (below) lived with his wife, Danielle, and her lover, in the rue de Bievre, and Anne lived 10 minutes away. After becoming president in 1981, Mitterrand did not live in the Elysee Palace, but went back each night to Anne, who was moved to a grace-and-favour residence.

A 36-man special group for the protection of the president was paid for by the unwitting taxpayer to fund these arrangements.

When a writer called Halier tried to publish a fictionalised version of Mitterrand's set-up, the president's "anti-terrorist cell" set about harassing him, slashing his tyres, making silent telephone calls in the middle of the night, and following him.

For Christmas 1987, Mitterrand took Anne and Mazarine to Egypt, and walked with them to the summit of Mount Sinai to prove his good health to his associates (he was 71 and secretly suffering from the prostate cancer that would eventually kill him).

From start to finish, he was complicated in matters of the heart. In 1942, his first serious girlfriend broke off their engagement.

When president, he made one of his ex-lovers, Edith Cresson, prime minister. He even played a game about his burial arrangements.

He knew Anne would be offended if he agreed to Danielle's suggestion that he be buried in her family's plot. But he could not refuse without offending Danielle. By a complicated ruse, he pulled off what he really wanted – to end up in his own family's vault where, handily, only one space was left.

The overwhelming impression of France in Mitterrand's time was of a country which was precarious. It had little faith in its own legitimacy and deep internal divisions. General de Gaulle's famous answer to this was to create a brilliant myth of France's integrity to help her recover self-respect after the German occupation.

Mitterrand seems to have seen the national confusion more as a personal opportunity. "I am lying in wait for the future," he wrote to a cousin during the war. "I am getting ready, body and soul, to make my entrance into the century ... There are men who believe in me, and I am afraid for them. I believe in no one, and that is what makes me afraid for myself."

As he trod the political path for 50 years, he tried almost every twist imaginable, including faking an assassination attempt on himself.

Cynic, trickster and autocrat though he was, Mitterrand does not emerge from this book as a contemptible figure.

As well as possessing the extraordinary political skills required to rule France for longer (14 years) than anyone since Napoleon III, he was a statesman. The EU we inhabit today has been shaped more by him and Helmut Kohl than by anyone else.

It is to their vision that we owe the trust between France and Germany which allowed Germany to be reunited with the peaceful agreement of its neighbours. It is their agreeing a European single currency as reunification's price to which we owe eurozone instability. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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