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Post-Coup Heat Being Turned on Mitterrand

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As French President Francois Mitterrand has discovered to his chagrin, not all the political losers in the failed coup against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev are to be found in the Soviet Union.

Once the rout of the eight Soviet putschists became clear, Mitterrand found himself under attack for not having supported Gorbachev enough during his three-day forced political exile. Even members of his own government criticized the French leader’s failure to clearly condemn the coup during a strangely vague television appearance Monday night.

“Where does prudence end and cowardice begin?” Bernard Kouchner, secretary of state for humanitarian aid, asked rhetorically during another TV appearance.

Opposition leaders, notably former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, jumped on the bandwagon. Giscard d’Estaing said he was “struck by the weakness” of Mitterrand’s criticism of the coup regime.

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Other opposition leaders noted that it took until Wednesday before the French leader even mentioned Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin, long after President Bush and British Prime Minister John Major, among others, had praised Yeltsin’s courage and endorsed him as the legitimately elected leader of the Russian people.

Mitterrand, 74, likes to describe himself as a close friend of Gorbachev, who is one of the few heads of state that the French president has hosted for dinner at his private Left Bank residence on the Rue de Bievre.

But in his Monday night TV appearance, Mitterrand referred to members of the Emergency Committee that overthrew Gorbachev as the “new leaders” of the Soviet Union and said they would be judged by their actions with regard to future relations with the West.

Mitterrand has also been attacked for giving the three-day regime a sense of legitimacy by reading during the broadcast a letter from one coup leader, Soviet Vice President Gennady I. Yanayev. Mitterrand appeared to be encouraged by part of the letter that talked of Gorbachev’s possible return to power when his “health improved"--a claim not taken seriously anywhere else in the world.

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“Was it necessary to read French television viewers a letter from Monsieur Yanayev, author of the coup d’etat? " asked Giscard D’Estaing, who lost to Mitterrand in the 1981 elections and led opposition leaders in calling for a special session of the French Parliament to discuss the French stand during the Soviet crisis.

Stung by the criticism, Mitterrand went back on TV Wednesday night in an obvious attempt to limit the damage. In this appearance, hours after the coup’s failure had become clear, he described it as “moving and beautiful” to see Yeltsin climb the tank and shake the hands of the Soviet soldier inside.

But by then, it was too late. His awkward Monday TV appearance had already opened wounds in Mitterrand’s image. His masterly, tough handling of the Gulf War had already been forgotten, and French newspapers were full of articles and cartoons criticizing his waffling Soviet stand.

This story was compiled from Times staff and wire reports.


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