Arabella Byrne

Was Francois Mitterrand a hero or villain?

Was Francois Mitterrand a hero or villain?
French President Emmanuel Macron salutes his predecessor Francois Hollande as he arrives for a tribute ceremony at the tomb of former president Francois Mitterrand (Getty images)
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François Mitterrand remains something of an enigma in French politics. Mitterrand was the original champagne socialist and he remains a poster-boy of the French left. But France's former president – an adulterer, member of the French Resistance with a Vichy secret, secularist and sometime Catholic – doesn't easily fit into any one box. 

This week marks forty years since Mitterrand became president. As with commemorating the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's death, the occasion marks something of a challenge for France's current president, Emmanuel Macron.

Macron, having uncancelled Napoleon last week by marking the bicentenary of his death at Les Invalides, is leaving the Mitterrand mania to the left, where, presumably, it belongs. He has a presidential race to think of and Marine Le Pen on his heels, rappelez-vous bien.

For some, even strongman of the right Nicolas Sarkozy, Mitterrand was a president like no other. A president who meant business with a plan to prove it. Many of his infamous 110 propositions are still around today: retirement at the age of sixty, abolition of the death penalty, five weeks of paid holiday (très French, taken all in August), professional equality for men and women, before you even get to Europe and the Maastricht Treaty.

For others, he is the Judas of the Left, a man who brought the Parti Socialiste so far only to poison it slowly with his decidedly Centrist policies. His detractors say he abandoned the Marxist rhetoric of the 1970s, brutally smothered the Communists with whom he had jumped into bed, and opted instead for a friendly relationship with French business and swingeing austerity. 

But if there's one clear symbol of his legacy it comes in the form of Génération Mitterrand, those born between 1981-1995, for whom the effects of his presidency are the most profound. Dreamt up as a slogan for Mitterrand’s 1988 reelection campaign by publicist Jacques Séguéla, and visually rendered as a child holding a man’s hand, the catchphrase immediately caught the imagination of a youthful activist Left. Having missed May ’68, young, trendy, and multicultural French people took on causes such as SOS Racisme and La marche des beurs in Mitterrand’s name, assuring him a second term even as his original base felt used and left behind. Empowered by their president’s support for social reform in the Devaquet affair over educational changes, the young Left saw a leader, if not in their image, then at least in their name.

And yet, not everyone in this generation has shared in the benefits of Mitterrand’s time in office. Novelists such as Marie Darrieusecq, Michel Houellebecq and Virginie Despentes speak of a period of generational sacrifice, an era in which rapid change left many vulnerable as industrial capitalism gave way to its financial counterpart and mass unemployment ensued. Hybrid and intermittent forms of employment (not unlike a gig economy) also took off for many workers, reducing not only income but the social benefits that went with them. 

This is what Mitterrand’s critics call l’effritement sociétale – an erosion of the structures of society itself. For those who fell through the cracks, the socioeconomic vulnerability persists in France to this day. No wonder Macron is unsure about how to mark the occasion.