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Danielle Mitterrand dies at 87; former first lady of France

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Reporting from Paris -- Danielle Mitterrand, a decorated member of the French Resistance and combative advocate for the poor who broke the mold as first lady alongside France's first Socialist president, died Tuesday. She was 87.

Mitterrand died after recently being hospitalized in Paris for fatigue, according to her foundation, France Libertes.

An avowed leftist, Mitterrand turned the 14-year tenure of her husband, French President Francois Mitterrand, into her own bully pulpit — one that long outlasted him.

He died of cancer less than a year after leaving office in 1995. In an especially poignant moment in modern French politics, the widowed Danielle Mitterrand stood before the late president's coffin alongside his mistress and daughter, whose out-of-wedlock birth and existence had long been kept secret.

A determined activist, Danielle Mitterrand advocated for many left-leaning causes, supporting Marxist rebels in El Salvador and ethnic minorities including Kurds and Tibetans, and vociferously opposing capitalist excess. Mitterrand created several charities and crisscrossed the world in defense of human rights. She once kissed Cuba's Fidel Castro on the steps of a residence for visiting dignitaries near the presidential Elysee Palace.

Despite her timid demeanor, Mitterrand had urged worldwide unity among "new Resisters" to "put an end to economic and financial dictatorship, the henchman of political dictators. Finally, they seem to be shaken by the anger of peoples."

Well before the Occupy movement took on Wall Street, Mitterrand told Le Figaro newspaper in 1996: "Of course, the world revolves around the Dow Jones" and other stock indexes "but all around the world, little voices are being raised to say that man is unhappy even if the stock market is doing well."

She reiterated that theme last month: "Money decides everything … that's why we are working to get out of this system."

In a statement released after her death, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said: "Neither the setback nor the victory caused her to deviate from the road she had laid for herself: giving a hearing to the voice of those that no one wanted to hear."

As a young woman, Mitterrand was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal for heroism for her work in the Resistance during the Nazi occupation in World War II.

Danielle Emilienne Isabelle Gouze was born Oct. 29, 1924, in Verdun, a town in northeastern France known as one of World War I's biggest killing fields.

Under the Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime during World War II, her father, a Socialist-leaning school principal, lost his job after refusing a state order to list all Jewish students and teachers for authorities, according to Mitterrand's foundation.

In March 1944, she went underground in the Burgundy hills with the Resistance. That year, she met and then married Francois Mitterrand. They had three sons, one of whom, Pascal, died young. She is survived by her sons Gilbert and Jean-Christophe.

For years, Danielle Mitterrand kept quiet about the secret relationship that her husband had had with Anne Pingeot, a museum curator and mother of his daughter, Mazarine Pingeot.

As first lady, Mitterrand shucked the tradition of her predecessors who largely kept to the background. In a 1986 AP interview, her blue eyes flashed at the suggestion that she resembled a high-profile American first lady.

"There is no traditional role" for a first lady, Mitterrand said. "Each woman has her own personality and … acts according to her conscience and her sensibilities."

news.obits@latimes.com

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