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Thirty years on, Mitterrand mania grips France
On May 10, 1981, François Mitterrand won his first presidential election, marking the start of a 14-year period in office that is being fondly commemorated across France. But it’s the future - not the past - that haunts the commemoration ceremonies.
The French can’t seem to get enough of François Mitterrand even 30 years after he was elected president.
Over the past few days, the distinctively patrician face of the former French president is everywhere, sometimes in profile, sometimes directly locking the camera - and the viewer - with his unsmiling gaze.
On May 10, 1981, Mitterrand was elected president of France, becoming the country’s first - and so far only - Leftist president under the Fifth Republic. He was subsequently re-elected in 1988 and held office until 1995, just months before his January 1996 death from prostate cancer.
For 14 years, as modern France’s longest-serving president, Mitterrand ruled in the grand style of his predecessor, Charles de Gaulle, a style the French call “democratic monarchy,” which included the overseeing of extensive architectural projects and sweeping policy reforms.
To his critics, Mitterrand was “God” – a grandiose politician who ignored a rising public debt and ushered in an era of high unemployment. But to his allies, he was “Tonton” – or uncle – a historical figure who changed the course of French history after his first victory in 1981.
Reliving Mitterrand moments - from his speeches to his dogs
Three decades later, the country appears to be still reeling from the momentousness of that occasion with commemorations ranging from the hagiographic to the fatuous.
Bookstores across Paris currently feature new books on the former president, some of which have climbed the bestseller lists.
Newspapers and magazines compete to offer bigger, better, glossier Mitterrand specials. French TV and radio stations feature an array of specials ranging from French politicians reminiscing about their Mitterrand moments, to documentaries on that eventful election day 30 years ago, to a show about the former French president’s dogs.
"People seem to take pleasure in recalling that day, and to share their memories," said Pascale Kremer, a journalist at Le Monde magazine, the weekly supplement of the French daily, Le Monde, which invited readers to share their memorable May 10, 1981 moment. "We received over 500 submissions in response to our appeal for witnesses, which is pretty unusual," she noted.
Not to be outdone, new media features include a special Twitter thread to relive the events live, exactly as they happened 30 years ago, while a special website and an iPhone application features some of Mitterrand’s famous speeches.
In addition to this media storm, about 200 commemorative parties will take place across France on Tuesday, including a free concert at the Place de la Bastille in Paris, echoing the one held 30 years ago to celebrate the historic victory of the Left.
“In France, first of all, we love to commemorate. We commemorate too many events,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a research fellow at IRIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques), a Paris-based think-tank. “But I’m surprised by the scope of the interest on the anniversary of this election.”
Seeking unity ahead of the 2012 race
Timing, according to Camus, may have something to do with the fervour of the Mitterrand election anniversary.
As France prepares for the 2012 presidential election, Mitterrand’s victory is a reminder of a simpler time – especially for France’s famously fractious Left.
“It’s probably the personality of Mitterrand and the fact that we’re approaching the 2012 election and the Socialist Party is in search of a candidate,” explained Camus. “Mitterrand in 1981 was the undisputed Socialist candidate, the election process was smooth. This may reflect the feeling with the French Left that they need to have a solid candidate and not be divided. It’s a longing for unity and an understanding that to win the 2012 election, the Left needs unity.”
While French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been slipping in the public opinion polls, the ruling UMP party nevertheless presents a united front to the French electorate.
In sharp contrast, the opposition Socialists are bracing for a bitter candidacy race with likely contenders including Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former Socialist finance minister and current IMF managing director, current Socialist Party chief Martine Aubry and François Hollande, a former Socialist Party chief.
Loved by the Left; hated - but respected – by the Right
Hollande’s former partner, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist presidential candidate who lost to Sarkozy in the 2007 election, is another likely 2012 candidate, one who has vocally attempted to don the mantle of Mitterrand’s legacy.
At a Mitterrand election commemoration Sunday, Royal struck a “Mitterrand-esque” note when she urged the French people to embrace the national flag as a symbol of republican values in an attempt to deny the extreme right Front National party a symbolic edge ahead of the 2012 polls.
In 1981 when he took office, Mitterrand invited the Communist Party into his first government, a controversial move at the time. But in the end, he succeeded in outmaneuvering and sidelining the Communist Party, a move that won the grudging respect of his critics to the Right.
“Mitterrand was hated, really hated on the Right. When he was elected president, he was an ally of the Communists at the height of the Cold War and many people at that time were persuaded that the Soviets would take over France,” said Camus. “But after Mitterrand showed himself to be the only man who was able to marginalise the Communist Party, there was a certain respect from the conservative right. Within the UMP today, many politicians use Mitterrand as a way to attack the Socialist Party, as a way of saying, ‘look, you don’t have any leader like Mitterrand.’”
A longstanding leader who held the presidency for a record 14 years, Mitterrand shook the French polity shortly after he first came to power following a legendary campaign for change under the slogan “Changer la vie”. His early policies, including the abolition of the death penalty and the authorisation of private TV and radio stations, have left an indelible mark on “la vie française”.
But although his later years in office marked a return to harsh economic realities, Mitterrand remains one of a kind in French politics and 30 years later, the French are acutely aware of it.