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.
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."
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Photo Credit - Philippe Grangeaud