THE DE GAULLE OF THE LEFT
François Mitterrand is entering his final months as French president after a long and full run. Some believe him to be a statesman; others call him a lucky careerist. By turn, Mitterrand is described as either a past-master Machiavellian and France's most detested politician or one of contemporary Europe's most durable, original, and successful leaders.
On the evidence, both judgments are valid reflections of the man and his legacy. In French politics, 14 years as a Gaullist "republican monarch" is plenty of time to make enemies, and Mitterrand already had more than his share when elected president in 1981. Internationally, his anti-Soviet stand and role in the Euromissile crisis marked East-West relations in the 1980s; so did his subsequent hesitations on German unification and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. as the wheel advanced from Cold War verities into post-Cold War uncertainties. When set against the dislike of leaders in Western countries such as the United States, Britain, and Italy, criticism of Mitterrand's shortcomings seems part of a Western political cycle still running on recession-made fuel.
Only by taking a historical perspective can Mitterrand be appreciated in his fin de règne. From such a standpoint, the French president -- now 78 years old and struggling against a life-threatening cancer to finish out his term -- presents a balance sheet with several striking successes as well as a few black marks and blind spots.
Without question, Mitterrand has been the most important French political leader since Charles de Gaulle. The fact that, after following a winding road, he ended up a genuine man of the left has importance beyond the issue of what remains of the old "left." It is key to understanding how Mitterrand was able to reinvigorate France as a nation capable of a continuing important international role -- just as de Gaulle, coming from the right, did in his time.
Mitterrand was elected as the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic
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