Sunday, January 15, 2006

Mitterrand, 'the last king,' lives on in French esteem

An interesting read in the weekend IHT. The article reports on the growing French nostalgia for ex-President Francois Mitterand, who died 10 years ago.

I find it hard to imagine given his record, which is that of an old-school Frenchman (collaborator, xenophope, France's way or no way on Europe):
[...] During his 14-year reign, Mitterrand hid his cancer from the public. He tried to prevent the reunification of Germany and ignored the AIDS epidemic. There were illegal wiretappings, in part to protect the secret existence of a daughter born out of wedlock. Financial scandals and revelations about Mitterrand's wartime service for the collaborationist Vichy government further tarnished his name.

He bloated the civil service, made high unemployment a permanent feature of the economy, fixed the retirement age at 60 and set in motion a reduced workload than culminated in the 35-hour week.

It was, according to an editorial in the center-right newspaper Le Figaro, "an incredible collection of economic follies for which the bill is far from settled."
I do recall the endless grand and ruinously expensive public works projects Mitterand pushed. But in that he was only following precedent.

This nostalgia is worrisome as the underlying appeal to France and Europe for strong leadership--despite their proud boasts of liberty and democracy--means that populist politicians will do progressively better as Europe continues its long term economic slide.

Unlike US style populism, European populists tend to be racist, anti-Semitic and without principle (think Britain's George Galloway).
Although he was a Socialist, François Mitterrand was the most regal of French presidents, and the 10th anniversary of his death this month has plunged France into a warm bath of nostalgia for the man who was reviled by some, tolerated by others, loved by a few.

Socialist politicians are competing to claim the mantle of Mitterrand, or at least to bask in his glow. All French presidents are now measured against him, much to the chagrin of Jacques Chirac, who has never quite measured up.

But how did Mitterrand suddenly become the gold standard for French leadership?

"François Mitterrand was the last king of France," said Jacques Attali, one of his closest advisers and author of a best-selling biography about him. "France today is no longer a truly independent nation, but not yet part of a global European nation. We're in a no-man's land. There is a longing for a monarch and a request for a stronger president." [...]

The longest-serving head of state since Napoleon III (1852-1870), he is instead being remembered as an intellectual who wrapped the country in glory and a champion of the left whose first years in power saw the end of capital punishment, the strengthening of regional governments and the promise of a new economic model that would protect the ordinary Frenchman. [...]

Mitterrand himself cockily predicted that France would go downhill after he left office. "I am the last of the great presidents," he is said to have boasted, adding that because of European unification and globalization, "Nothing will be as before."
Hardly surprising that he felt that way. It must have been clear to him that he had mortaged France's economic future in return for a couple of final decades on the world's stage for his nation.
Indeed, part of the Mitterrando-mania, as the wave of interest is called, is a powerful longing for an era when France was still capable of projecting power on the world stage.

Mitterrand ruled before the collapse of the Soviet Union 15 years ago robbed France of its strategic importance as a leading nuclear power and as the political agenda-setter for the European Community, as the European Union was called in those days.
The expansion of the European Union challenged France's ability to make decisions on its own and sparked popular fears of a loss of national power, as illustrated by France's stunning rejection of the European Constitution last year. [...]

"François Mitterrand gave the impression of strength, of success," said Hubert Vedrine, a close former adviser. "He seduced everyone. France today is in a period of malaise, of nervous depression, and neither Chirac nor the Socialists have been able to replace him."

Certainly, many Socialist Party leaders marking the Mitterrand anniversary in his hometown in the southwestern town of Jarnac last Sunday reveled in the reflected glory. Also on display, though, were some of the divisions orchestrated by Mitterrand, who delighted in playing off different factions to prevent potential rivals from challenging him. [...]
The article goes on to discuss various likely Socialist candidates for President in 2007. None are particularly compelling figures.