Skip to main content

Guardian of the Republic

Anne Corbett gives her appreciation of the late Francois Mitterrand. An appreciation: an estimate of the worth of somethingsomeone. From the Latin appretiare - (pretium meaning price).

In their diversity, the appreciations of the former French president, Francois Mitterrand, following his death in Paris last week, underline the original and not necessarily complimentary meaning of the word.

The ambivalences are scarcely surprising for a person who has been a flamboyant player in 50 intense years of French political life, culminating in 14 years as the Republic's president.

The French as a whole, whatever their political convictions and their reserves about Mitterrand's ambiguities, have nevertheless rallied behind the image of a great statesman, a key figure in the construction of Europe and a personally courageous man. So have front-line British politicians. Geoffrey Howe former foreign secretary also aptly pinpointed Mitterrand's humour. When Margaret Thatcher chided the French president for taking a sombre view of the European Community's future his face lit up at "Madame Non's"positive words:"I think Mme Thatcher is even more seductive when she says yes, than when she says no. "

But the appreciations of Mitterrand on British television I found depressingly small-minded and ahistorical for judging that Mitterrand was only consistent in the pursuit of power.

Having been resident in Paris for the past 20 years, much of it following education, I want to say something very different. I don't find easy to digest the extreme right-wing connections of Mitterrand's youth, the ambiguities of the Vichy years or the damage of his second period in office where disdain for rivals almost sabotaged the Socialist party, and his tolerance of continued corruption was an affront to most French people.

But are those the relevant criteria for the president of the years 1981-95? In historical terms, one expectation of Mitterrand's election in 1981 was that it would at last legitimate the Left, and make the alternation of government normal. No small achievement in a country where memories live on of three great revolutions, the battles of Church and State, the divisions of the Occupation, 1968, a long-powerful Communist party, and a once strongly Marxist intellectual class.

It was also to be the period in which no western society could ignore the dislocating effects of the global economy, and which saw the disappearance of many of the old reference points like the meaning of work, community and human dignity.

In one of Francois Mitterrand's last interviews he made it clear that he would like to be seen as a president who had been a proper guardian of the country's institutions and who had struggled to bring peace. The new president Jacques Chirac confirmed that Mitterrand had "guaranteed the functioning of our institutions, he guarded the democratic process with serenity".

In 1984 education provided a dramatic illustration of what that could mean in practice and how shattering the process would be to his supporters. That was the year in which his Socialist-led government tried to put through legislation to implement the 19th-century Republican dream - and 1981 manifesto commitment - to a single and secular public education service, by abolishing the separate but subsidised Catholic sector.

Throughout the country Catholic parents organising protests found massive support. There were demonstrations in Paris of more than a million. At that point it became clear that the powerful teachers' unions, MPs lobby,and all those shaped by a 19th-century vision of militant secularity, were out of touch with one fact. The French population's support for the Catholic sector was not basically religious. A majority simply believed there should be a choice of schools. It was a defining moment.

In this battle Mitterrand, whose early years were spent under the deeply Christian influence of a big provincial family, was at first tactically deaf to the arguments put forward by the teacher unions and his adviser Regis Debray (friend of Che Guevara) as to how to proceed. He left the minister of education, Alain Savary, to fight it out with MPs, Came the moment when national leadership was needed. There are gripping accounts of secret meetings with church leaders and political trusties at his pastoral property in the Landes, his agonising on solutions.

These accounts show a man a million miles from the Machiavellian image so often stuck on him. Here was the people's leader trying to square commitment to the Republic's values, the manifesto of the party and the clear desire of a majority to retain a choice of public and private (Catholic) sector schools. Ultimately he was the guardian of the Republic. The legislation - and the party commitment - got dropped. The government fell. Alain Savary, a man of great integrity, who had had a rotten deal, died shortly after.

It can be debated whether the outcome would have less dramatic, had Mitterrand been involved earlier. But another reading is that France is lucky in its institutions to have someone to fulfil an arbiter role. And it was lucky in Mitterrand. The themes which had always interested him were those particularly suited to the guardian role: equity rather than equality; issues of justice and human dignity.(to be reflected in reforms like the abolition of the death penalty and of star chamber justices.

In less dramatic form Mitterrand demonstrated his capacity to smooth tensions during the 1990 student protest. He was avuncular and seductive in his capacity to listen and to find the words that could make citizens feel comfortable that the issues were in good hands. Jean Plantu chief cartoonist of Le Monde saw him as President Hip Hop, not just "Tonton" the students' uncle .

It could be said that much of what Mitterrand did as President was educational. However - and partly due to the French institutional division between president and prime minister - the education system itself was a subject about which he said little. He concentrated on the capital letters of abstract values; the Nation, Education. the Intellect.

The practical problems of schools and universities never interested him . The university crisis as France's student population approached two million, tripling in little more than a decade, was not something he took seriously. It was Michel Rocard as prime minister and Lionel Jospin as minister of education who launched the plan Universite 2000 and a revision of the baccalaureat.

Mitterrand was not overtly concerned by schools problems either.

What appealed to him more was to invite famous intellectuals to the Sorbonne, and later to create the Academie Universelle des Cultures for the same sort of purpose. That should not be underestimated either. As Lady Thatcher said in her appreciation: "By his bearing and his culture he seemed to symbolise for the rest of the world something of the essential France."

Alain Touraine and Michel Wieviorka, two leading French sociologists, see Mitterrand as a bridge between an old economic order and the new. They admire his skill in getting the French to accept the 1983 economic policy U-turn and European option - after two years of socialist economics - and to get the French to feel subjectively happy with their national image. But they suggest that by concentrating on the imagery of national unification - France's version of the feel-good factor - rather than on the more concrete problems, he stored up explosive times for the future. In this respect the strikes of the past few weeks have been ominous.

We shall have to wait to see whether their fears are realised. As of today I have just two regrets about a period which has changed my life and which was quite largely incarnated by Francois Mitterrand.

Due to a cynical friend, I never made it to the Bastille on May 10, 1981. "This is not The Revolution," he said, putting a brake on our enthusiasm to go out in the rain and celebrate. Due to family circumstances I didn't make it to the Bastille last week either. I would have liked to lay a rose for a great man in the history of France.

Education in France, Change and Continuity in the Mitterrand Years, a collection of readings edited by Anne Corbett and Bob Moon, will be published by Routledge in March.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you