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Europe

Mixed legacy for Mitterrand on French left, 20 years after death

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François Mitterand during his 1981 presidential campaign AFP/Jean-Claude Delmas

When French President Francois Hollande was elected to office in 2012, he brought the Socialists back to power after 17 years. The previous Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, is remembered for having unified the left to sweep into office in 1981. Yet 20 years after Mitterrand’s death, as Hollande marked the anniversary by visiting his tomb in southwestern France on Friday, Mitterrand’s leftist legacy is perhaps not as strong as some would have it.

Mitterrand, who died on 8 January 1996, can be remembered as the man who created the modern French left, bringing it into power after 23 years in the opposition.

He did this by folding the Communist party — then the dominant force on the French left — into the ranks of the Socialists.

Today, given the tension in the different currents of the French left and in French politics in general, there is the temptation to remember the early 1980s as a time of unity.

Yet Philippe Marlière, a French political scientist at University College London, says that unity lasted only a few years.

“It’s a bit cheeky on the part of some supporters today to present Mitterrand as a champion on the left,” he says.

Those supporters forget Mitterrand’s shift by the mid-1980s, he says: “He is a man who asked the left to give up its traditional ideas and values of solidarity and redistribution to embrace at the time what was presented as a more modern take on society: embrace capitalism, the market.”

Marlière points out that the Front National had its biggest victory since it was formed in the early 1970s during the 1984 European election, at the centre of Mitterrand’s first term in office.

The political shock of the far-right party winning nearly 11 per cent of the national vote continues to reverberate today, as the Front National is now a real political force in France.

European legacy

Mitterrand championed some major social reforms in France: he lowered the retirement age from 65 to 60; he abolished the death penalty.

Yet perhaps his biggest legacy is pushing for a stronger European integration. He was a champion of the Maastricht treaty, the 1991 agreement that created the European Union.

In his last public speech in June of 1995, a month after the end of his second term in office, he addressed the new European Parliament with one of his most memorable speeches.

“We must conquer our prejudices,” he said. “If we do not, we must know that a new order will impose itself: nationalism. And nationalism means war.”

Of course Mitterrand’s vision of a Europe of institutions, of integrated markets, is a vision that critics today say does not meet the needs of actual people, and it is the reason for many of the economic and social problems of the beginning of the 21st century.

Philippe Marlière says that Mitterrand’s legacy for the left today is waning. The Socialist party is in flux, trying to figure out the direction it will take in the future.

“I think there are talks today about moving on, and not even calling themselves Socialists,” he says.

A new, post-socialist party would be more centrist, and a major departure from what has come before.

“That’s why in a sense Mitterrand is a little bit of an embarrassment, not the man himself, but clearly his strategy,” says Marlière.

Today’s strategy is not at all clear, given the different currents on the left in France.

Francois Hollande, who was an adviser to Mitterrand when he was a young man, was elected in 2012, and seen as taking the mantle.

But even he appears to see a shift. In the guest book at Mitterrand’s grave on Friday he wrote: “Everything is continuity, and everything is change.”

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