François Mitterrand was the fourth president of the French Vth republic. Many loved him, many hated him, most with passion. He was elected so that the country would cease being capitalist, yet when his second term ended, France was more favourable to corporations than ever before. A question still in the air is wether he actually believed the ideals people thought he represented, or if he only sought power. An activity he was very good at, anyway.
Mitterrand was born in the provincial town of Jarnac, in 1916. His family was deeply catholic, and they were strongly conservative. His father was an ancient train driver who had turned to making vinegar. Mitterrand however always talked about his father's first job, hoping to show proletarian origins. He went to Paris to study law; there, he joined various far right movements, which were quite popular in the troubled 30's.
He was drafted for World War II in 1939; and, like many soldiers, was captured by the German army. However he was able to escape from the prison camps, and in 1941 came back in France. He began working for the Vichy Government led by Philippe Pétain, in the administration that took care of returing POWs. He was decorated for this by the Maréchal. However, he joined the Résistance in 1943; quickly he became a clandestine, heading the Résistance movements gathering ancient prisoners of war. He participated to the first government of Charles de Gaulle as the later was liberating France.
Deputy of the Nièvre département in 1946, Mitterrand became an important politician during the IVth Republic. He was a member of most of the Cabinets of the time ; his political platform regularly drifting to the left. He stopped being a Cabinet member in 1956, disagreeing with the policy followed regarding the "troubles" in Algeria. However, by that time as a minister he had already condoned the use of torture.
After Charles de Gaulle arrival to power in 1958, Mitterrand became one of the most vocal critics of the new French Constitution, publishing a book titled Le Coup d'Etat Permanent - the never-ending putsch. Indeed that constitution was much more presidential than what France was accustomed to. Another event of those years regarding the man was is faked assassination attempt, staged by Mitterrand to raise his popularity. A move that backfired badly when the lie was discovered.
Candidate for President
However he was able to be the only candidate of the united left-wing parties in the 1965 presidential elections; he succeeded in causing a second round, a surprise at the time as De Gaulle's popularity was high. However in that second ballot he was beaten by the Général by a wide margin.
The next few years were those of hardship for François Mitterrand; the left-wing parties were quickly recomposing themselves, and he almost didn't find a place in any of them. Michel Rocard, head of the Parti Socialiste Unitaire, refused him because of his behaviour during Algeria's independence war. He didn't participate in the 1969 elections, perhaps luckily as those were catastrophic for the left wing. Finally, he joined the Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière, the old SFIO (French Section of the Worker's International), as it was about to become the Parti Socialiste at the Epernay congress in 1971. He directly became its leader upon joining.
His main success at the time was to make the parties of the left, the Parti Socialiste, the Parti Communiste Français and the Parti Radical de Gauche, to work together, with a common platform, to have him elected as president. This failed in 1974 however, when he was narrowly beaten by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. The 1978 elections for the Assemblée Nationale, however, were a failure for a left wing that had given up its Common Platform; Mitterrand was able to be nominated candidate of the Socialist Party however, against Michel Rocard, who had finally joined it, but remained one of his fiercest enemies.
Finally in 1981 Mitterand beat Giscard, probably helped by the candidacy of the gaullist mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac, and the rather low score of the Communist Party candidate Georges Marchais. This low score was an advantage as it meant the Communist Party would not be very powerful in the incoming cabinet if Mitterrand won; thus the centrists voted for him on the second ballot.
May 10th, 1981 was an evening of partying in the street; the left wing had not been to power for nearly a quarter of a century, and many people hoped for a change. And a strong one : many people thought this election would mark the end of capitalism in France. At least, Mitterrand, the new President, had made many a speech against this system. To answer to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's spectacularly televised speech, Mitterrand staged his own happening; going to the Panthéon, alone (except for the television crew, of course...) to put a rose (the symbol of the Parti Socialiste) on the tomb of Jean Jaurès.
In the beginning of his presidency, and with the help of Pierre Mauroy, the new Prime Minister, he indeed tried to put an end to French Capitalism. There were four members of the Parti Communiste in the cabinet; he nationalised many a large corporation; the retiremenr age was lowered to 60, a fifth week of paid leave was made compulsory, as well as the 39 hours work week. The death penalty was abolished; the state monopoly on radio and television ended; power was decentralized to regional, departmental and communal levels...
However the wall of money was quickly hit. Money was quickly leaving France, as people who have it have historically shown an aversion for a policy that more or less wants its long-term suppression. Inflation, unemployment and public deficit rised quickly. The Franc was going down. Indeed, if France wished to remain in Europe - while England or Germany followed much more conservative, and thus uncompatible, policies - it had to follow another path.
In 1984, there was a new Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, and a new policy, much closer to the center. The communists left the cabinet. This was enough to save the partnership between Mitterrand and Helmudt Kohl, but not to save the socialist majority in the Assemblée Nationale. The 1986 elections were a defeat for the left, a victory for the right wing and for the far right Front National, the later helped by a new, proportional system of election. It was the first time in the Fifth Republic the Assemblée Nationale wasn't of the same political side as the President; the constitution hadn't been tested yet for such a case; how would the system work?
The Prime Minister would be Jacques Chirac. And François Mitterand, a cunning politician. The new majority led a nearly Thatcherian policy, privatising as fast as it could, lowering taxes for the rich, and thus appeared to be quite far from the center to the French population. Mitterand used the rise of the Front National, helped by his change of election system, to look like the defendant of France against Fascism. This wasn't helped by a nearly racist speech by Chirac in the next presidential campaign. As was expected, Chirac and Mitterand qualified to the second ballot of the 1988 elections; the debate was extremely tense. Mitterrand beat Chirac by a wide margin of 10 percents, justifying his nickname of Tonton - "uncle". He was popular.
The Second Term
However he had to nominate Michel Rocard as Prime Minister; a man Mitterrand still hated, but was too important not to put in the position. For the next three years, the situation would nearly be one of cohabitation again. Rocard led a center left policy; no nationalisations, but no privatisations either. However his incapacity to get along with the President led to his dismissal in 1992, leaving his place to Edith Cresson, the first woman to become Prime Minister in France. She was extremely obedient to Mitterrand; Rocard opposite. But she was not fit for the job, and one year later Pierre Bérégovoy took her place. However this was the height of the 1993 economical crisis ; unemployment was at an all-time high; the Socialist Party had been involved in various scandals, and the right wing won the majority of the Assemblée Nationale.
The new cohabitation, with Edouard Balladur as Prime Minister, was much less confrontational than the previous one. Mitterand, who had announced being ill with cancer, knew he would not be candidate for yet another term; Balladur was more willing to compromise on some subjects, such as foreign policy. Mitterrand didn't even involve himself in the socialist campaign for the next Presidential Election, with Lionel Jospin as candidate, and which would be won by Jacques Chirac.
He died on January 8th 1996, less than a year after having quit politics; having written in his will "a mass is possible", he had two : a national one in Notre Dame de Paris, with Chirac and many other heads of states, and another one in Jarnac. A strange thing for someone who had been publicly agnostic since the end of WWII.
A faithfull catholic he was certainly not; among the many scandals that surfaced near the end of his second presidency, was the fact that he had had a daughter, Mazarine, with one of his mistresses, Anne Pingeot, and had been able to hide it from general knowledge for most of his terms. This was one of the lesser scandals to taint the end of his life, since the private life of politicians is not often mentioned in France. More problematic were the suicide of the former Prime Minister Bérégovoy, and that of one of his close advisors, François de Grossouvre, both for unknown reasons.
He was also much criticized when it was rediscovered he had worked for the Vichy government; the photograph of his receiving the Francisque from the hands of Pétain was indeed shocking. Indeed, he kept as an acquaintance René Bousquet, who as the head of the Paris police during Germany's occupation had had an hand in the deportation of Jews. Many people also recalled his behaviour at the beginning of the Algerian war. Also, many scandals of corruption were uncovered near the beginning of the 90's that involved the socialist party.
A more private problem was the fact he had not mentioned the cancer which had appeared as early as 1981, a time when his prognosis was only of three years at most. His survival probably shows his hunger for power. However, during the last three years of his presidency he was too sick to assume his fonctions, an obviously problematic situation.
Mitterrand was a man of contradictions. Conservative as a young person, he joined the left wing much later; quite the opposite of what is the usual political trajectory. Yet, a vehement critic of the Fifth Republic, he easily adapted to the mold when he became president, and even proved the stability of its institutions with the two cohabitations. Supposedly a leftist, his program in 1981 was one of breaking off from capitalism. After 14 years of reign, capitalism was more solidly installed than ever. Unemployment had risen, the workers' share of profits diminished...
Yet his presidencies were also years of deep modernisation of the country. Technological advances abounded, to the TGV to the final availability and reliability of the phone system. Freedom of Speech at last became a full reality, whereas the airwaves had been previously tightly controlled. It were also the years during which the European Union became a reality, thanks to a strong partnership with Helmudt Kohl. The Euro's existence owes much to this man, who bartered it against not opposing to Germany's reunification. His last political move of importance was the adoption of the Maastricht treaty.
Another of his features was is tendency to overemphasise the monarchic nature of the Vth Republic. He surrounded himself with many advisors, favourites; the staggering amount of monuments he ordered built with likely be visible in Paris for a long time. These transformation were of an amplitude not seen since Napoleon III. Those range from the very ugly, like the Bastille Opera, to the quite good-looking, such as the extension of the Louvre museum. Other "Grands projets" include the new National Library, which would be named after him; the Institute of the Arab World, or the Villette technology museum.