Mitterrand’s Grand Entrance

(continued from yesterday)

On May 21, 1981, eleven days after his election, Francois Mitterrand officially took office as the French president. The day was marked by official ceremonies and public events. After the ritual wreath under the Arc de Triomphe, Mitterrand headed to Paris’ Left Bank for a new ceremony of his own: a pilgrimage to the Panthéon that was orchestrated to outdo Giscard’s farewell two days prior.

The Pantheon, completed in 1789 – the year of the French Revolution, was a symbolic mausoleum to “receive the bodies of great men who died in the period of French liberty”. Mitterrand entered the mausoleum holding a solitary rose — the symbol of the French socialists — as the Orchestre de Paris played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in the background. The crowd outside and the TV viewers didn’t know that but the Pantheon had been turned into a studio for the occasion. Cameras greeted Mitterrand and followed his descent in the crypt. Artist Serge Moati was engaged to direct the entire sequence. Rehearsals, body doubles and props (for the flowers) were used. Shrewd video editing enabled Mitterrand to enter the Pantheon with a single rose but place three roses on three graves; as Pierre Mauroy, Mitterrand’s first prime minister, said: “The rose for Jean Jaures represented our heritage; it was for the man who knew how to mobilize the left. The rose for Jean Moulin was the man who was able to unite Frenchmen from all walks of life to resist the foreign invador. The rose for Victor Schoelcher was the man who made of France the emancipator of peoples.” When Mitterrand emerged from the Panthéon to face a crowd of cheering young supporters brandishing red roses, he displayed the first smile of his inauguration day. A final flourish was provided by a rendition of the Marseillaise, exuberant post-Giscard tempo that has been personally prescribed by Mitterrand.

But if Mitterrand’s election elated his supporters, it produced apprehension in the West and in certain areas of France. As Mitterrand entered the Pantheon, many Parisians frantically packed their bags to flee the impending socialist “campaign to out-Keynes even Keynes”. Hidden behind these fears was a deeper realization that France’s unparalleled economic prosperity of the last thirty years had ended. Only two years before, the demographer Fourastié eulogized the era by his neologism, Les Trente Glorieuses. Mitterrand’s election, in this sense, was as much a vote against incumbency as a profound soul-searching.

Yet, Mitterrand’s moderate supporters believed that he would take a far more centrist approach once in office but he went on with his most radical promises: he created 250,000 new government jobs, raised pay for government employees, shortened the workweek from 40 to 39 hours, added a fifth week of paid vacation, reduced the retirement age to 60, increased social payments through Allocations Familiales, and nationalized 38 banks and 7 industrial giants. The results were an unmitigated disaster. The budget deficit tripled; inflation and unemployment stood in double digits. Mitterrand had to devalue the franc no less than three times to keep France’s exports competitive. Following the time-honored traditions of French presidents, Mitterrand sacked his first ministry and embarked on one of the most extraordinary reversals of economic policy in modern history: he froze the budget in 1983 and held raises for public employees below the rate of inflation. Entitlement programs were rolled back, and labour rules that restricted private sector hirings were weakened. By the mid-80s, the budget was back in balance, and inflation fell to around 4%, thanks to this reversal which Mitterrand called “La Rigueur,” or roughly “Austerity” in English.

(Video of Mitterrand’s Pantheon Visit below; begins at 3:30 mark)

Mitterand’s Funeral


Mitterand’s wife Danielle stands on the  left, his mistress Anne Pingeot (second from right) and illegitimate daughter Mazarine (third from right)

François Mitterrand served as the President of France from 1981 to 1995, the first left-wing head of state since 1957. He also holds the record of the longest-serving (almost 14 years) President of France. At his funeral in 1996, his wife Danielle and his long term mistress Anne Pingeot  stood side-by-side at the grave, accompanied by their respective offspring. Although the press made no comment, the existence of his daughter by Anne, Mazarine, was revealed by the popular magazine Paris-Match in 1994, just months before he left office. Mitterrand concealed the fact for years.

Photographer Nan Goldin chose the photo above, by Laurent Rebours as a favorite when asked by American Photo for their 20th century special issue in 1999: “I was impressed by this picture being widely published as it respected the reality of a man’s intimate relationships regardless of his position of power. The difference in Europe is that there is so much less hypocrisy and moral judgment about sexual and love relationships. I was moved by the fact that the grief of both his wife and his mistress at his funeral was acknowledged publicly. This is in sharp contrast to the absurd moral play enacted in the Clinton witch trials in the U.S.”

For more details on private life of French politicians, see Sexus Politicus (Dubois, Deloire), whose premise is that in France, a successful politician is also a seductive politician. Prime Minister Edgar Faure enthused when he gained the lofty title ‘President of the Council’, “When I was a minister, some women resisted me. Once I became president, not even one.” President from 1895 to 1899, Félix Faure (not a relation) died in the bed of his mistress. De Gaulle was the only post-World War II French leader to maintain a strict military discipline over his personal life. Giscard d’Estaing claimed he had as many mistresses as the salons of Paris, and noted, “When I was president of the republic, I was in love with 17 million French women. When I saw them in the crowd, they felt it and then they voted for me.”


Chunnel Treaty Ratified


Socialist French President François Mitterrand and conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Together, they were the titans of European and world politics in the 80s. Together, they harkened back to the era when the fate of the world was decided by the statesmen of Europe in her chancelleries. … and they didn’t get along well.

Thatcher was taught as a child by her grocer father that the French were both Roman Catholic and Communist and riddled with sexual disease; Mitterand said that Margaret Thatcher had ‘the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe’. Thatcher’s finest European hour came in 1984 when she marched into Fontainebleau to demand the ‘British rebate’–66% rebate from the French and the Germans who wanted to give only 50%.

However, these two statesmen accomplished one monumental project together: the Chunnel. Thatcher said she had no objection to a privately funded project to bridge the English channel, and in 1981, Thatcher and Mitterrand agreed to set up a working group to look into a privately funded project. Four submissions were shortlisted and in 1986, the Eurotunnel bid was selected. Foreign Affairs Ministers of both countries signed the Franco-British Treaty in Canterbury, which was ratified in 1987 by Thatcher and Mitterrand (above) inside the famed Chapter House, in Canterbury Cathedral.

The tunnel was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II and Mitterrand in a ceremony held in Calais on 6 May 1994.