FRANCE

Love letters from Mitterrand to his mistress captivate France

Derrick Ceyrac, AFP | Relatives of former President François Mitterrand (L to R), Danielle Mitterrand, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, Mazarine Pingeot, Anne Pingeot, Gilbert Mitterrand and Adrien Mitterrand at his funeral on Jan. 11, 1996.

A collection of love letters from former French president François Mitterrand to his longtime mistress, Anne Pingeot, hits the bookstands next week. But the French media already can't get enough of their former president's illicit love life.

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An image from a blustery January 1996 afternoon, when Mitterrand’s two families stood around the former president’s flag-draped coffin, is seared in the French public’s memory.

Standing slightly behind Mitterrand’s wife Danielle and his four children – three sons and an illegitimate daughter, Mazarine – Anne Pingeot looked elegant and withdrawn in her black winter coat topped with a veiled pillbox hat.

But the nation’s attention was fixed on Mazarine, the product of a decades-long relationship between Mitterrand and Pingeot. The January 1996 funeral marked 20-year-old Mazarine’s first official appearance, and the dark-haired, dark-eyed girl who bore a striking resemblance to her late father was the subject of intense media scrutiny.

Over the past two decades Mazarine (who uses her mother’s family name) has occasionally sought the media spotlight, notably when the author and philosophy professor released a new book, diary or memoir.

Of her mother – the withdrawn, grieving presidential mistress in the photograph – very little has been said. Pingeot, 73, is an art historian specialising in 19th-century French sculpture and was once curator of the sculpture department at both the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. She has also authored several art books and catalogues.

But French respect for la vie privée (private life) is so sacrosanct that Pingeot’s amazing story as the longtime mistress of France’s first Socialist president in the Fifth Republic has been dismissed with a Gallic shrug.

Powerful men, especially presidents, are almost expected to have mistresses, and Henry Kissinger’s contention that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” is taken quite seriously in France.

And so, for more than half a century, Pingeot was granted all the room she needed for her secret life.

But on Thursday, October 13, that is about to end – on her own terms.

Lettres à Anne” (Letters to Anne), published by leading French publisher Gallimard, is a lushly produced collection of more than 1,200 letters from Mitterrand that have been compiled and edited by Pingeot herself.

The septuagenarian, it seems, plans to control her story until the end. If the selection, transcription and editing have an obvious bias, the French don’t appear to care much – they seem more focused on the literary flair of their late president, lionised to an almost embarrassing degree by the French left.

‘O the desire for your arms’

The publication of “Lettres à Anne” comes more than 20 years after Mitterrand’s death and five years after that of his wife, who is a non-presence in a book revealing the private thoughts of a French politician conducting an affair with a woman nearly 30 years his junior.

The pre-launch media blitzkrieg kicked off this week in the literary section of leading French daily Le Monde, which on Thursday published excerpts from “Lettres à Anne”. L’Obs weekly featured a cover story on the “lettres d’amour” with an “exclusive” pink-bordered, 21-page spread including excerpts, photographs of the duo and sketches they drew of each other.

Dubbed “the Sphinx” for his usually inscrutable demeanor, Mitterrand appears to have been a lion in love. “O the desire for your arms, your being, of the fire and the swell, the shout that leaves us on the edge of another world," Mitterrand wrote. In another, he swears: “I will love you until the end of me.”

He did indeed love Pingeot until the end, which came only a year after he retired, ill with prostate cancer – another fact that was kept hidden from the French public.

A letter with a book by Socrates

The correspondence in “Lettres à Anne” dates from 1962 to 1995 and begins when Pingeot was 19 (legally a minor at the time) while Mitterrand, at 46, was an already married senator.

The first letter, dated October 19, 1962 and formally addressed to “Mademoiselle Anne Pingeot”, arrived with a book by Socrates. “This little book will be the messenger to tell you of the faithful memory I keep of a few hours of a lovely summer,” wrote the senator.

Philosophy, literature and art were the foods that nourished the long romance. However, communication – an incessant, almost compulsive communication – appears to have kept it alive through the years.

Mitterrand provided his mistress and daughter with an apartment and security detail, all courtesy of the French taxpayer.

In her 2012 book, “Bon Petit Soldat” (Good Little Soldier), Pingeot’s daughter revealed that Mitterrand officially lived with his wife and sons during his years as president but that he spent most nights with her mother in their apartment.

If this arrangement caused any angst – to Pingeot, to Mitterrand or to his wife – we don’t hear about it in this book. “Lettres à Anne” is a collection put together by the muse. It is designed to show French readers that their former president was a thoughtful lover and a magnificent, thoughtful writer.

The moral ambiguities of cheating, or of maintaining an illicit household using state funds, is something the Anglophone world can only wonder at.

This book is a collection simply about un amour, albeit one that was presidential in stature.

 

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