Shortly before leaving office last week, President Valery Giscard d'Estaing was asked to describe what he considered to be Socialist Francois Mitterrand's most positive quality. Without hesitation, he replied: "his endurance."
A veteran of more than 40 years of politics, France's new President is a man of unflagging persistence and courage. But Mitterrand is also a man whom even his close associates cannot claim to know intimately. Only a small handful of longtime comrades in arms are permitted to "tutoyer" him (use of the personal address) or call him by his Christian name. For many, Mitterrand remains a total enigma.
Until his third and successful bid for the presidency May 10, Mitterrand appeared sadly condemned to ending his political career as "the man who never quite . . . ." His plodding pragmatism, his grave aloofness, and his inability to lead the left to victory against Gen. Charles de Gaulle in 1965 and Giscard in 1974 caused some tongues to cruelly refer to him as a washed-out Fourth Republic politician ill at ease in a modern FRance.
Lacking the electric charisma that goes over well on color television or among clamoring street crowds, Mitterrand appears uneasy when in close contact. While supporters treated his election with the gusto of a victory festival, he remained almost disconcertingly calm and somber.
Mitterrand has never quite managed to engender the sort of popular love that rivals such as Socialist Michel Rocard or neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac manage to elicit among supporters. Although one recent poll maintains that 51 percent of Frenchmen find Mitterrand "sympathetic," only 13 percent consider him to have a "warm" personality. In discussions with left-wing voters around France, this correspondent found that many did not cast their ballot for Mitterrand the man, but rather for the change he represented.
Despite his quiet provincialism, Mitterrand the politician can be surprisingly effective. His cutting and often witty oratory can sweep his rallies with wild enthusiasm. At the same time, however, the man now sitting in the Elysee Palace is a man with vision inspired by an acute social, cultural, and historical sensibility.
Mitterrand's rural middle-class background seems incongruent with his present left-wing ideology. His father, a modern Roman Catholic, held a senior position in the railways before taking over the family vinegar business in France's southwest Charente region.
Trained to be a lawyer, the young Mitterrand had to wait until the end of the war to begin his political career. Drafted in the French Army, he was injured at Verdun in 1940 and taken prisoner by the Germans. HE managed to escape from POW camp 18 months later after trying three times. In 1942 he took a job with the general commissioner for prisoners of war under the Vichy regime. He also became active in the resistance and specialized in organizing escapes.
Mitterrand has often been criticized for being opportunistic. During the war , for example, he was awarded the "Francisque," a high Vichy award. When this was later dredged up by political opponents accusing him of collaboration, Mitterrand defended himself by claiming that had he refused, it would have blown his resistance cover.
Eventually Mitterrand went underground and operated under the name of "Captain Orland" in cooperation with General De Gaulle. It was during this period that he met Danielle, his future wife.
An attractive, petite brunette from burgundy, she worked as a nurse tending resistance fighters at the age of 18. The couple only saw each other three times before their marriage in the fall of 1944. Discreet, but shrewd, Danielle is known to have played a vital role in the political career of her husband and is herself an active Socialist militant.
After the war, Mitterrand joined the center-left Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance and was member of parliament in the provisional government in 1956 for the Nievre department. During the late 1940s and 1950s Mitterrand held various ministries in a dozen governments. He strongly opposed the return of De Gaulle in 1958.
With the establishment of the Fifth Republic, Mitterrand entered the left-wing opposition. Since then he has advocated the need for a greater balance of powers between the presidency and parliament a change he has promised to implement.
In 1965, Mitterrand opposed De Gaulle as the left's single candidate but lost by almost 2 1/2 million votes.
Following his defeat, he began pushing for a common program among the left-wing parties. He eventually succeeded, but the common program uniting the Socialists, Communists, and radical left fell apart in late 1977.
Mitterrand, however, is responsible for having built the small Socialist Party in 1971 to its present strength as France's third biggest political group with the prospect of becoming the largest in the coming legislative elections.
In 1974, Mitterrands's campaign slogan was: "The only project of the right is to maintain power. My only ambition is to give it back to you." Although this year the slogan was "quiet strength," his ideas have not changed.
His appointment of a center-left government is an indication of where Mitterrand intends to lead France. But until he has the majority he needs to push through the "new deal" he is offering France, Mitterrand, the President, must still remain a mystery.