For The French Left, François Mitterrand's Legacy Continues To Improve With Age

Exactly 30 years ago -- on May 10, 1981 -- France elected its first socialist president. This week the country’s Socialist Party is heralding the historical event, overlooking Mitterrand’s dark side to celebrate the highlights of his political legacy.

Catherine Dubouloz

A plethora of books, re-editions, newspaper and magazine specials, documentaries… The 30th anniversary of François Mitterrand's election has sparked an unprecedented wave of nostalgia. The first and only left-wing president since 1958 has earned, like Charles de Gaulle before him, a major place in the history of the Fifth Republic. For both, time has rounded out some of their rougher edges, allowing for nostalgic celebrations of their legacies and amazing political careers.

For Mitterrand, the time for listing the pros and cons has long gone. "Within the Socialist Party, no one needs to position themselves against his legacy to have an identity of their own anymore," says Gerard Grunberg, research director at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris.

That was not the case a decade ago, when acknowledging his legacy was still unthinkable. "It's striking. François Mitterrand used to be a divisive personality. Now he's become a point of reference for the left," says François Miquet-Marty, co-director of the Viavoice polling institute. "Time took care of everything. The scandals and the secrets are just pebbles in the sea of history," says Florence Drory, author of 2011: The Year of François Mitterrand.

Just a year away from the 2012 presidential elections, celebrating Mitterrand's victory, which gave power to the left after 23 years in the opposition, has become a mantra for today's Socialists. "If his image is so positive, it's because he was the only one who was able to unify the left and win a presidential election," says Grunberg. "He made the political pendulum swing and that's his biggest legacy."

With 5,079 days spent as president, he also managed to hold on to power for a quite a while despite the fact that "the left was still haunted by a curse that only allowed it to hold power for very short periods of time," says Pierre Favier in his book Ten Days in May.

"François Mitterrand's work is now part of the basis of the Republic," said Laurent Fabius, Mitterrand's prime minister from 1984 to 1986, during a meeting in Paris last Friday at the François Mitterrand Institute. "No one today would challenge the end of the death penalty or the laws on decentralization."

In terms of national politics, "one of his biggest achievements was the wind of freedom and modernization that took hold of France," says Pierre Mauroy, his prime minister from 1981 to 1984. Among the Mitterrand government's notable reforms: removing exceptional tribunals; opening up the airwaves to allow for new radio and television stations; and decentralization, which prompted the development of regional capitals. Maury adds to that list "developing access to arts." The government not only fixed prices for books, it also spearheaded massive architectural projects like the Louvre and its glass pyramid, the Opera Bastille and the National Library.

Mitterrand also instituted several social reforms, giving workers a fifth week of paid annual leave and lowering the retirement age from 65 to 60 (current President Nicolas Sarkozy struggled last year to change it back.)

"The Mitterrand nostalgia is also that of great projects and great designs in cultural, social or international areas," says Jack Lang, a former culture minister and a close friend of Mitterrand who just finished a book on his memories of the president: Francois Mitterrand, Fragments of a Shared Life.

In terms of foreign policy, "the impulse François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl and Jacques Delors gave to construction of the European Union was the golden era. Until the adoption of the Maastricht treaty in 1992, Europe had never made so much progress," says former Minister Elisabeth Guigou. For Mauroy too, "the May 1981 legacy is the irreversible choice of the European Union, of maintaining France in the European monetary system. That led to the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty and eventually the Euro."

For the French Socialists "the overall assessment is positive, with some dark spots," admits Fabius. Among the stains on the president's legacy: the country's stagnant economy and the fact that Mitterrand, despite being an outspoken critic of the institutions of the Fifth Republic, failed to carry out major institutional reforms. There were also the scandals, secrets and Second World War revelations linking him to the secretary general of the Vichy police. Not to mention his secret daughter, his silence about his illness and the wiretapping...

"His rivals talk about ambiguity, about lies. But François Mitterrand saw the world as a place where people, things and situations were always two-sided. A person is always both courageous and cowardly, a situation can be both desperate and promising," says Fabius. "During his life, he went through tough times, times when he was rejected and hated, others when he was adored and celebrated. This current nostalgia would have made him smile because he often used to joke that in France a good socialist is a dead one."

Read the original article in French

Photo Credit - Philippe Grangeaud

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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