The Mitterrand palimpsest

FRANÇOIS MITTERRAND WAS around for so long (he first held office in 1944-5) and got up to so many things, almost every year is some sort of Mitterrand anniversary. My regular reader will know that I’m something of an obsessive about the former French president and don’t need much excuse to write about him. This year I will have plenty – 2016 marks not only 20 years since Mitterrand’s death, but also the centenary of his birth, in the market town of Jarnac, deep in the Cognac country of south-west France, on 26 October 1916.

I already have a stack of Mitterrand-related reading on my desk, including a new book on the president’s last days by the editor of L’Express, Christophe Barbier, and Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s dauntingly huge 1996 biography, François Mitterrand: une vie, which I’ve promised myself to finally get round to reading this year. But I was drawn first to Georges-Marc Benamou’s Le Dernier Mitterrand, the book on which Robert Guédiguian’s celebrated 2005 film on the president’s last days in office, The Last Mitterrand, was based. I’ve watched this film so many times that Michel Bouquet’s superb portrayal of the president has largely displaced my memories of the real Mitterrand.

Benamou was the Globe journalist given “unprecedented access” to Mitterrand during his last year as president, and the rather sad eight-month coda to his life after he left office (actually, quite a few people claim to have had such access – Barbier among them – I guess Mitterrand didn’t like being alone much). There’s a scene in Benamou’s book which doesn’t feature in the film – surprisingly, because it seems to capture the essence of the Mitterrand mystique. It’s certainly made a big impression on me. I can’t get it out of my head. I can picture the scene from the film even though I know it isn’t there.

Mitterrand starts speaking enigmatically – even madly – about an “unknown war” with America, a “a permanent war, a war without death, apparently” but which is also “a war to the death”. Mitterrand seems to imply that although the war is “permanent”, it is a war that France – and Europe – have already lost. It doesn’t make much sense but, as the president continues talking, Benamou senses that he is no longer talking just as himself, but as all his predecessors.

Benamou claims to sense De Gaulle’s tone, and then those of other French leaders stretching back into the middle ages. The image he cites is a striking one: a photo-montage by the artist Krystof Pruszkowski, a sort of visual palimpsest in which portraits of all the Fifth Republic presidents up to that point — De Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard and Mitterrand — are superimposed on one another. This was the ghostly figure, Benamou says, who was speaking to him in that darkened room at the Elysée in October 1994.

I managed to dig up a copy of the picture (I don’t have the rights to post it here) and spent some time staring at it. Benamou is right: you can recognise features from all four men, but the only people you really see are De Gaulle and Mitterrand.

Benamou felt that all France’s past leaders were incarnated in this frail body, this “national corpse” (Mitterrand was dying from prostate cancer, which it was later revealed he’d been suffering from since at least 1981). And that Mitterrand is the last in the line, the last real leader of France, perhaps the last real political leader in Europe. Mitterrand says something similar elsewhere in the book (and in the film): “I’m the last of the line, the last of the great presidents. After me there will just be managers, technocrats, bankers.” This extinguishing of politics is perhaps what Mitterrand means by the war Europe has lost.

Mitterrand’s point was overblown – you can’t say that Chirac was just a manager or that Sarkozy was a techno-anything, although Hollande – ironically, a Mitterrand protégé – fits the mould perfectly. But Mitterrand does now look like the last of the big, ambitious political leaders in Europe. By 1995, he was the last significant politician of the wartime generation still in office. If the past is recoverable at all, it’s through the people who lived in it. When they are gone, the way back becomes fogged. We are working with ghosts – and ghosts are unreliable and personal to each and every one of us.

The past is the ultimate mystery, the ultimate fantasy world. (How can it be here, in so many forms all around us, and yet not be? How weird is that?) The easiest way to access this fantasy world is through the people we knew and loved. Our memories of them become entwined with the ghosts of public figures and our knowledge of the times in which they lived. I tend to conflate memories of my Dad with stories of people like Mitterrand and Denis Healey, because they lived through the same period and went through many of the same experiences. They are all characters in my own fantasy story of the 20th century – a time which is gone, but which refuses to settle down and feels like it will never be still.

For years, I have carried around a story in my head: my Dad, shortly after going into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with the Royal Artillery in 1945, encounters a bossy French official called François, who has arrived in haste from Paris. The story takes different forms (in one they argue about access to a toilet, in another they get drunk on Courvoisier), but I’ve always believed it was spun around a core of truth: that Dad and Mitterrand were at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, possibly on the same day (Mitterrand was the French official responsible for repatriating French prisoners from the concentration camps).

I can’t remember now whether the story comes from something my Dad told me (it isn’t there in the extensive notes I took shortly before he died in 2009), a dream, something I read about Mitterrand, or whether I just made the whole thing up. That’s how the past works on us – endless versions, real and imagined, and most a mixture of the two, superimposed on one another: a rich soup of memories, facts and fantasies, spiked with that sense of unbearable loss.

But reading Benamou’s book, I’ve now know that Mitterrand never went to Bergen-Belsen at all, although he was present at the liberation of Dachau by the Americans in the same month. Even though I’ve seen the film countless times, I’d missed the fact that the camp Mitterrand describes was Dachau, not Belsen. I’d believed it because I wanted to; it fitted with my storybook version of the past.

In the same way, my version of French history, and of Mitterrand’s presidency, will be different to yours – much of mine comes from that film and what I’ve projected onto it. Just as I was disappointed to find out that the history of Imperial Rome didn’t unfold the way I saw it as a child in I Claudius (no, Augustus wasn’t at all like Brian Blessed), no doubt all this Mitterrand reading will dispel more of my illusions. But it will only replace them with others: a fresh set of fantasies to weave into my personal version of what we call “the truth”.

In my head, two men still emerge hand-in-hand from the mist on that April morning on the North German Plain. I know one of them well enough. I may never get to know the other. So I can make of him whatever I will.

Photo: Jacques Paillette/Creative Commons 3.0

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