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Former first lady Danielle Mitterrand dies at 87
Danielle Mitterrand, the widow of France’s former Socialist President François Mitterrand, died early Tuesday at the age of 87. A former resistance heroine, she used her position as first lady to devote herself to many humanitarian causes.
Danielle Mitterrand, the widow of the former Socialist French president François Mitterrand, died on Tuesday morning at age 87. A lifelong political and human rights activist, the former first lady is remembered for taking sides on contentious international issues and breaking with the role traditionally reserved for the wives of French heads of state.
She was admitted to the Georges-Pompidou hospital in Paris on Friday and was placed in an induced coma on Sunday following respiratory complications. She had been hospitalized previously in September. She is survived by her two sons, Jean-Christophe and Gilbert.
France Libertés, the non-governmental organisation she founded in 1986, and where she actively worked until her death, said its president lived by her convictions until the end. “Despite her passing, Danielle Mitterrand leaves with us a message of hope, which shows the way towards a more just world for future generations,” the NGO said in a statement.
Shortly after the news of her death was announced, political leaders from all parties paid tribute to her life and work.
In a statement issued by the French president’s office, Nicolas Sarkozy said that even beside her strong-willed husband, the former first lady had “managed to manifest her independent spirit, her exceptional will and dignity” and that she “was also able to serve the France we love."
Cécile Duflot, party chief of France’s Green party described Mitterrand as a “resistance fighter and free woman,” in a message on the social media website Twitter.
Speaking on BFM television, the right-wing defence minister Gerard Longuet said he remembered “a woman of conviction, very committed, very different in character than her husband and perhaps more direct, with a common thread that was on the left.”
In a statement to the AFP news agency, Socialist presidential hopeful François Hollande said he conveyed “all [his] recognition for her work, all his admiration for this great figure”, adding she was at the forefront of the Socialist Party’s historic presidential election victory in 1981.
First lady and tireless activist
Born in the north-eastern city of Verdun, Danielle Mitterrand, née Gouze, became politically active from a young age. She joined the French Resistance during World War Two at age 17. In 1944 she met François Mitterrand in the clandestine networks fighting Nazi occupation and helped him avoid arrest by the Gestapo.
During the same year, and after allied forces liberated France from German occupation, François and Danielle were married in Paris. Their first child Pascal was born in 1945 but died just two months later. Their sons Jean-Christophe and Gilbert were born in 1946 and 1949.
François Mitterrand quickly joined politics after WWII and became a Member of Parliament. Observers in France have said that as far back as the war Danielle Mitterrand was further to the left ideologically than her husband.
After election defeats in 1965 and 1974, François Mitterrand became France’s first Socialist president in 1981. In contrast to the haute couture-wearing first ladies of France, Danielle Mitterrand said she wanted to bring simplicity to the Elysée Presidential Palace. However, she went on to completely squash protocol by using her position to support humanitarian and partisan causes during Mitterrand’s 1981-1995 tenure.
She was especially outspoken on international political issues and consistently took sides with causes in the developing world. She backed the Dalai Lama’s struggle against China, and the Kurds oppressed in Iraq. She defended the leftist Sandinista fighters in Nicaragua and the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico.
More notably, her support of the Cuban revolution and friendship with leader Fidel Castro caused friction with the French government. In the last interview before her death she recalled her “contradictions” with official French diplomacy. “To those who came to complain, François [Mitterrand] would say, ‘her causes are just, and I can’t stop her from defending them’,” she told the Journal de Dimanche weekly last month.
Life after François
Shortly before François Mitterrand bowed out of politics in 1995, the French public discovered the existence of his mistress, Anne Pingeot, with whom he had an illegitimate daughter named Mazarine.
In 1996 François Mitterrand died of cancer and the French were surprised to see images of Anne Pingeot and Mazarine standing alongside Danielle Mitterrand and her two sons at the late president’s funeral. In a 1996 book, Danielle Mitterrand wrote that Mazarine’s birth in 1974 was “neither a surprise nor a drama”.
Devoted to her NGO since its creation in 1986, Danielle Mitterrand continued her activism after her husband’s death and in later years distanced herself from her late husband's Socialist Party. Contrary to most Socialist Party leaders, she argued against the adoption of the European Constitution in France’s 2005 referendum.
With France Libertés she became increasingly involved with human rights work. In October the organization celebrated its 25th anniversary. Her last great cause was the right to water across the globe. “Unfortunately, the politicians are not ready to make [water] a free resource of all humanity. To do this, we would have to break with capitalism,” Mitterrand said in her last interview.