François Mitterrand

(1916—1996) French statesman, President 1981–95

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(b. 26 Oct. 1916, d. 8 Jan. 1996).

President of France 1981–95

Early career

Born in the south-western town of Charnac (Charente) and raised by devout Roman Catholic parents, he studied law at Paris University. In the Battle of France, he became a prisoner of war in 1940. Mitterrand escaped from the Germans on his third attempt and joined the Résistance movement, of which he became a prominent member, receiving the Croix de Guerre for his bravery in 1946. However, for cover he worked as a civil servant for the Vichy government and even accepted its distinctions. The extent of his cooperation in this capacity led to intense public discussion during the last years of his presidency.

After the war, Mitterrand emerged as the leading socialist spokesman and served in eleven governments during the Fourth Republic, e.g. as Minister of the Interior under Mendès-France in 1954. Even though he supported de Gaulle's policies on Algeria, he opposed his introduction of the Fifth Republic and the institution of a strong presidency. This did not prevent him, however, from standing against de Gaulle in the 1965 presidential elections as the candidate of the left, when he managed to force him into the second round. In 1971, he became the undisputed leader of the left when he engineered the launch of the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party), and in 1972 he strengthened the left even further when he masterminded the creation of the Union de la Gauche (Union of the Left). He narrowly lost to Giscard d'Estaing in the 1974 presidential elections, and suffered another set-back when the Communist Party left the Union in 1976.


In 1981, he managed to defy his reputation as the ‘eternal loser’ when he won the presidential elections at his third attempt. The innovative socialist policies of his first Prime Minister, Mauroy, became deeply unpopular as they plunged the country into a severe economic crisis. His successor, the technocrat Laurent Fabius, attempted to correct this in time for the 1986 parliamentary elections through stringent neo-liberal economic policies. This failed to revive the fortunes of the Socialist Party sufficiently, so that Mitterrand had no alternative but to appoint his political arch-rival, the Gaullist leader Chirac, as Prime Minister. During the subsequent cohabitation between the two men Mitterrand insisted on conducting Foreign and Defence policy, while Chirac had a relatively free hand in pursuing domestic policies.

In the presidential elections of 1988, the voters preferred the steady hand of Mitterrand to the apparently overambitious Chirac. He appointed Michel Rocard as his new Prime Minister, who lowered taxation and reduced the budget deficit. In foreign policy, Mitterrand continued to be the central driving force towards further European integration, together with his friend, the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. High popularity ratings during the Gulf War proved to be his swansong, however. He was greatly weakened by his ill-judged appointment of Edith Cresson as Prime Minister (1991–2), and the fateful end of her successor, Pierre Bérégovoy (1992–3), who committed suicide on 1 May 1993 amidst allegations of corruption. Moreover, a general desire for change triggered by the unprecedented longevity of his tenure, and his increasing inability to govern owing to prostate cancer, made him unpopular during his last years in office.


Subjects: Politics — Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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