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'Bad Life' minister's colourful dynasty

Frederic Mitterrand
Frederic Mitterrand before answering questions on French television

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

The French like to think that since the Revolution they have moved on from such archaic constructs as political families, hereditary dynasties and the whole notion of aristocratic rule.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

French politics, just like French arts and French business, is littered with well-known names that repeat themselves through the generations. Take the Mitterrands.

The Mitterrands are from the Cognac area of south-western France, where the original patriarch Joseph was a prosperous vinegar-maker in the early part of the last century.

Many believe it would be hypocritical to hound Frederic Mitterrand from office

Joseph had eight children, of whom the most famous, Francois, served as Socialist president of France from 1981 to 1995.

Francois's elder brother Robert was an engineer and company administrator, and his younger brother Jacques (who is still alive) was an air-force general.

Scandal

In the next generation, Francois Mitterrand's elder son Jean-Christophe worked for many years at the Elysee as his father's special advisor on African affairs. And his second son Gilbert, after serving as a member of parliament, is now mayor of the wine town of Libourne.

Francois Mitterrand
Francois Mitterrand wrapped himself in secrecy

Meanwhile, the president's nephew Frederic (son of Robert) became a television personality and film-maker, before being named minister of culture earlier this year.

And today the late president's widow Danielle continues her work at various left-wing charities, while his long-hidden daughter Mazarine is a well-known writer.

Like all good dynasties, the Mitterrands have also had their fair share of scandal - starting with the president himself.

Charismatic, ambiguous, feline and pharaonic, Francois Mitterrand wrapped himself in secrecy - as if to lend his supreme Republican office the mystique of a bygone royal age.

Only in the last years of his life did the French learn of his early links with the pre-war far-right. Likewise, the fact that he had a secret teenage daughter (Mazarine). And only when he was dead did they discover he had suffered from cancer for most of his second term.

Supporters believed him touched by political genius, but his enemies called him a liar and a succession of political and financial affairs irrevocably tarnished the end of his era.

Fighting

One of these scandals went on to entrap his son Jean-Christophe - who went by the revealing nickname Papamadit (Daddy told me).

In 1993, this Africa specialist (he started out as an AFP reporter in West Africa) was placed under investigation in connection with a secret arms deal with Angola.

At his trial it was established that he had used his Elysee connections to oil the wheels for arms trader Pierre Falcone, receiving several million francs for his services. He was convicted of tax fraud, and given a 30-month suspended prison sentence and a large fine.

And now scandal is also lapping around the late president's nephew Frederic, who stands accused of indulging in sex tourism over extracts from his graphic autobiographical novel The Bad Life.

On Thursday evening Frederic Mitterrand put on a fighting display in an interview on prime-time news, refusing to step down as culture minister. He conceded that he had paid for gay sex abroad, but vehemently denying it had ever been with underage males.

The Bad Life
The minister's graphic autobiographical novel

A minister in similar circumstances in Britain, for example, would have very little chance of survival. The tabloids would be baying for his blood, seizing on the many ambiguities in Mitterrand's account.

For example, in the book there is no question that he is talking about having sex with "garcons".

In the much-quoted key section - set in a Thai gay club - he says that "the profusion of boys, very attractive and immediately available, puts me in a state of desire that I no longer need to hold back or hide."

In many countries, this would surely be enough to bring him down - not because he is gay, but because there is an inconsistency between a government committed to fighting sex tourism and a minister who has been a sex tourist.

But in France, where a belief in the right to privacy and a liberal view on sex are both near sacrosanct, many believe it would be hypocritical to hound Frederic Mitterrand from office.

Because when you come to think of it, what has he done other than speak honestly? And after all, he is a Mitterrand.



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