The strange afterlife of François Mitterrand

François Mitterrand, French president between 1981 and 1995, died 16 years ago. Well, so they said. But turn on French radio or TV, look around a bookshop, or scan the feature pages of a French paper, and old Tonton is still with us.

Le Chapeau de Mitterrand, by Antoine Laurain, Flammarion 2012.

Perhaps it all started with Robert Guédiguian’s remarkable 2005 film about the president’s final days, The Last Mitterrand (available with English subtitles on DVD). It was certainly given impeteus by the thirtieth anniversary of Mitterrand’s election last year, when Olivier Py’s play Adagio (subtitled ‘Mitterrand: secrets and death’) opened to packed houses in Paris’s Théâtre de l’Odéon. There are dozens of books about Mitterrand, both factual and fictional, and most a mixture of the two.

Mitterrand is summoned like a spectre in almost all political debate, his name mentioned more often than most living politicians (yes – hands up – check the tag cloud for this blog). Nicholas Sarkozy was said to be obsessed with him. Even with Hollande in the Élysée, the French Socialist party still feels like a family shorn of a dominant father. Last year, Florence Pavaux-Drory, Mitterrand’s biographer and one-time adviser – and an avowed atheist – told France 24: ‘Mitterrand is still our model and our leader – at least our spiritual leader. We feel the energy of Mitterrand is still with us.’

Antoine Laurain’s Le Chapeau de Mitterrand adds more mist to the mill of mystique around the former president. Set during the mid-80s, it’s a set of charming stories about four middle-class people (none of them natural Mitterrand supporters) who successively come into possession of the president’s lost hat. The hat, one of Mitterrand’s favoured black narrow-brimmed fedoras, mysteriously seems to confer on them some of the president’s élan, his gravitas, his genorosity of spirit and, in one or two cases, more than a little of the low cunning that Sarkozy so admired. Each has their life turned around while sporting the presidential titfer and comes to believe that it – and somehow Mitterrand himself – is responsible. The president himself makes only fleeting appearances at the beginning and the end of the book, where the stories culminate in a wicked twist that manages to be both touching and sinister at the same time.

Can you imagine a similar novel about any recent British political figure? Harold’s Pipe or Major’s Underpants, anyone? But it works beautifully with Mitterrand, who even in life moved in mysterious ways. His past was not so much a closed book as a palimpsest on which so many different versions were written that even now it’s impossible to discern anything as mundane as the truth: how deep was he in with Vichy? What did he really do in the Resistance? Did he set up the failed 1959 assassination attempt on himself? We still don’t really know.

François Mitterrand in 1995: was it adieu or just au revoir?

But there’s more to it than that. The man is a ghost in the only real sense of the word. His slow death from prostate cancer, which he battled through his second term, gave him an air of tragic destiny which both repelled and fascinated the French. The sheer length of his career – he was first a minister in 1944 – his frequent comebacks, his links back to the Resistance, to Vichy and the Third Republic, made him seem eternal. And then, of course, he was so very French: a gourmet, a bibliophile, a philanderer with a secret daughter. In a country that likes to see itself incarnated in ambiguous historical figures (Jeanne d’Arc, Napoleon, De Gaulle etc), Mitterrand is slowly being petrified into part of France itself.

In his last New Year message as president, just a year before he died, the atheist Mitterrand turned towards the camera and, the trace of a smile about his thin lips, said: ‘I believe in the forces of the spirit, and I will never leave you.’

It’s spooky to watch. People have puzzled for 16 years over what he meant by this. But he knew. And now so do we.

  • ‘Le Chapeau de Mitterrand’ will be published in English as ‘Mitterrand’s hat’ by Gallic press in 2013.

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