To start things off royally, a popular televised puppet show changed its satirical name for French President Francois Mitterrand from the familial “uncle” to simply “God.”
Then, in a critical new book, a former adviser to the Socialist government describes Mitterrand as a “monarch preoccupied with himself” who has abandoned all forms of leftist idealism that once formed his political base.
This week, a leading French national magazine, Le Point, published a cover article with an illustration depicting Mitterrand as a haughty, bewigged Bourbon king. The article, entitled “The King and His Court,” accused the septuagenarian leader of rampant nepotism and abuse of power, including a charge that in July, Mitterrand rescheduled a Cabinet meeting so he could fly to Venice for a “very personal” rendezvous.
Such attacks are rare in France, where it is still technically a violation of an 1881 law to “insult the head of state” and where the press seldom mixes private affairs with affairs of state.
But six months after he became the first president since Charles de Gaulle to be elected for a second term, Mitterrand suddenly finds himself fair game for all sorts of criticism ranging from a pair of books by former government adviser Thierry Pfister and journalist Phillippe Alexandre to articles about his “imperial presidency” in several newspapers and magazines.
Meeting With Gorbachev
Mitterrand is in the Soviet Union this weekend for meetings with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In interviews before he left France, the 72-year-old French leader appeared perplexed by the virulence of the criticism.
“I have the impression that they were not talking about me but about someone else,” he said at a meeting in Montpellier on Wednesday with Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez.
Asked to explain the spate of attacks from journalists, Mitterrand said:
“They know that I am here for seven more years. They know that the (Socialist majority) National Assembly has been elected for five years. They find that a long time, and they are troubled by it.”
In fact, nearly all French presidents since De Gaulle, who rewrote the constitution to give the chief executive near-dictatorial powers over defense and foreign affairs, have been subjected to charges of monarchical rule. During the De Gaulle years, the French satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine entitled its presidential column “The Court” and wrote it in the diary style of Saint-Simon, whose memoirs chronicled the court of Louis XIV.
The regal ways of former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Mitterrand’s predecessor, contributed to his downfall in 1981. In describing the role of French leadership under the Fifth Republic, noted political scientist Maurice Duverger of the Sorbonne said, “The president is the republican monarch.”
But even avid supporters of Mitterrand admit that after his election in May to a second, and presumably final, seven-year term, the president has retreated from an active role in the daily governing of France.
In this respect, he has taken De Gaulle’s advice that the president should only be “in charge of the essential,” leaving the details to the premier.
When President Reagan leaves office in January, Mitterrand will be the oldest remaining leader of the seven largest non-Communist industrialized nations. Painfully conscious of the fact that he has been upstaged in the world theater by Britain’s Margaret Thatcher (the most recent example is Gorbachev’s decision to stop in London to see the British prime minister on the way back from his U.S. encounter with Reagan and President-elect George Bush next month), Mitterrand has spent nearly all his time in recent months dealing with foreign affairs and attempting to put himself in a position of influence when the European market is unified in 1992.
“He wants to be a prime mover in the Europe of 1992,” said a Western diplomat based here.
Reacting to recent criticism that he has no “grand plan” for the future, Mitterrand reacted testily in an interview with Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette of the magazine L’Express:
“To make a unified Europe, to serve peace, to help the Third World--are these small things?”
Political analyst Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the Institute of International Relations in Paris, describes Mitterrand as a “bored king” who is frustrated that Europe is slow to come together, that the West German economy is more vital than France’s and that Thatcher has stolen his thunder on the world stage.
But reporters and aides who travel with him on his peripatetic rounds say he has never been more content.
“He wants to enjoy life now,” said a reporter in his regular entourage.
This summer, for the first time in anyone’s recent memory, Mitterrand took a full two-week holiday at his retreat in Latche.
He plays golf every Monday morning. He meets more frequently than ever with friends, and he savors the regional cuisines of his homeland.
Mitterrand loves to travel, especially on the back roads of France. On a trip to the Tarn Valley, he was in very good spirits, joking with reporters and townspeople. Sensing his jubilant mood, someone asked him what he was celebrating.
“Each day is a birthday,” he responded.
Reporters who regularly track the happenings at Elysee Palace and who occasionally accompany Mitterrand on his daily walks through the streets of Paris say the comment was a perfect reflection of a new aura of contentment that surrounds the French president, a man who has no major political challenges left in his long career.
In the early months of a new seven-year term as head of state, after 42 years of public service, supported by a Socialist Party majority in Parliament and a premier of his own picking, Mitterrand no longer gets involved in the dirty details-- le sale bulot-- of governing France.
The scars from two years of his political “co-habitation” with Gaullist Premier Jacques Chirac, whom he defeated in a head-to-head presidential election last May, have mostly healed. When Mitterrand does speak of domestic issues, such as the crippling series of recent strikes by nurses, transportation workers and post office employees, he does so elliptically, a voice descending from the heights, perfumed with paternalism and historical perspective.
Clearly, Mitterrand had taken the high road on the strike question. He left it to Premier Michel Rocard to give the striking trade unions the bitter pill: No pay raises. Demands will not be met. Wait.