The Eternal Return Of the `Sleeping Cat'

His Socialist Party was defeated, but French President Mitterrand is making a comeback - once again

THE nucleus of dignitaries and well-wishers moved through the crowd assembled on the lawn of the Elysee presidential palace, with cameras clicking and hands waving all around, like a slow-motion version of the pack in the Tour de France.

The man at the center of all this adoration was not a sports idol or rock star, but French President Francois Mitterrand. Three months ago he had been declared politically obsolete, yet there he was, almost ebullient, and - like the cat with its fabled nine lives - offering confidently, "the claws, whether in or out, are still there."

Mr. Mitterrand celebrated his 13th Bastille Day garden party July 14, and paradoxically, for a politician confronting the twilight of his long career from a position of diminished power and public approval, it looked to be one of his best. After the March elections devastated his Socialist Party, fed calls for his resignation, and forced him to "cohabit" with a prime minister and government of the right, Mitterrand could revel a bit in rebounding public polls and active roles on both the domestic and int ernational stages.

"It's the eternal return of the man from Latche," Mitterrand's country retreat, says French political observer and longtime Mitterrand specialist Alain Duhamel.

If the French president were not a septuagenarian - and if the expression were not what the French would consider just another vulgar anglicism - one might be tempted to borrow a younger world leader's sobriquet and call Mitterrand "le comeback kid."

The contrasts with 1992 are striking. Last Bastille Day, Mitterrand nervously faced a crucial referendum he had called on the European Community's Maastricht Treaty. An unpopular Socialist government soldiered on toward certain doom in spring 1993 elections, the president's health was disquieting, and only a few days after that garden party, Mitterrand was jeered at a commemoration for French Jews deported during World War II.

This year the president is in better health, his Maastricht poll won by a squeak, and he largely placated Jewish groups by declaring July 16 a national day of commemoration for France's thousands of deportees.

The suave politician has adapted to a less-than-ideal domestic situation and turned it to his advantage.

"He comes from a generation of fighters," says Michel Foucher, director of Lyon's European Geopolitical Observatory. "He was 23 in 1939 when he started his resistance, and it's that quality that has kept him going in political life."

Understanding how his wings had been clipped by the March elections, Mitterrand gave the French the prime minister they wanted in Gaullist Edouard Balladur - and continues to see his own popularity rise as a result, Mr. Foucher notes.

Mitterrand has ceded some of the president's traditional "reserved domain" in international affairs to the prime minister. As Foucher says, Mitterrand understands that in today's world the line between domestic and foreign affairs is blurring, but he also has set a convenient precedent for guarding France against the dangers of a dictatorial president after his departure in 1995.

A president who elsewhere might have become an irrelevant lame duck is using - with relish, it seems - the last two years of his career to further what Foucher considers the three priorities of a president in twilight: reforming France, boosting the republic's role in the international arena, and securing a solid future for Europe.

Physically Mitterrand may conjure up what he himself once described as a "sleeping cat". But as events unfold in the months ahead and in the areas he considers so important, one suspects that this old cat is actually poised to employ the fight, and the claws, he's got left.

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