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1996: France's former president Mitterrand dies

VIDEO : The French public pay their respects

France is mourning the loss of its longest-serving president, Francois Mitterrand, who has died at the age of 79 from prostate cancer.

The news was announced by President Jacques Chirac at a news conference at the Elysee Palace.

He told journalists: "For 14 years M Mitterrand wrote an important page in the history of our country. A great figure has left us."

World leaders have paid tribute to France's former president, but Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl's was probably the most heartfelt. The pair had formed a close friendship in their shared goal of seeing through European integration.

"Europe has lost a great statesman," he said.

"I am mourning a good friend. We worked together in a close and trusting way for many years in building Europe and the deepening of German-French friendship."

He leaves behind him two sons by his wife, Danielle, and one daughter by his mistress Anne Pingeot.

Switching sides

Mr Mitterrand was a controversial figure with a murky past.

The son of a stationmaster, he graduated from the prestigious Institute of Political Sciences. In 1940 he was taken prisoner after the fall of France and escaped from Germany in 1941 to join the collaborationist Vichy government. He then switched allegiances to the resistance movement.

He held ministerial posts in many cabinets from 1947 until 1958 when Charles de Gaulle became president. A strong opponent of de Gaulle, he made first unsuccessful attempt at the presidency in 1965.

In 1971 he became leader of a new Socialist Party consisting of various disparate left-wing groups. Three years later, in 1974, he tried once more to win the top job but was defeated by Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Finally he won the presidential elections in 1981 to become the first socialist president in 35 years.

He left office in May 1995 after two seven-year terms and two periods of "cohabitation" - having to work with a right-wing majority in parliament, first with Mr Chirac as prime minister in 1986 and then with Edouard Balladur in 1993.

Changing the face of Paris

Mr Mitterrand earned himself nicknames from friend and foe alike.

Socialists called him Tonton (meaning Uncle) and admired him for bringing the left back into power. The tabloids dubbed him the Great Seducer for his reputation as a womaniser, counting film stars Brigitte Bardot, Michele Morgan and Josephine Baker among his lovers, as well as France's first female prime minister Edith Cresson and former minister Elisabeth Guigou.

And his critics called him "God" because of his expensive architectural "Grand Projects" in Paris - including the glass pyramid at the Louvre and the massive Arche de La Defense - and his monarchic style of leadership similar to his predecessor General de Gaulle.

And like de Gaulle, Mr Mitterrand rejected the pomp of a state funeral. He will instead be buried after a private ceremony in the family tomb in the village of Jarnac, near Angouleme, where he was born.

A mass will be held simultaneously at Notre Dame in Paris attended by world leaders.

In Context
Francois Mitterrand's legacy to his right-wing rival Jacques Chirac was high unemployment, mounting public debt and rising taxes. The new president struggled to tackle these problems. His attempt in 1995 to reduce costs in the heavily subsidised railway system led to a crippling transport strike and capitulation to the workers.

President Chirac called elections in 1997 to try to boost the number of right-wingers in parliament. The move backfired, the socialists won and, like his predecessor, the president was forced to "cohabit", this time with Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin.

Even after his death, the Mitterrand name was linked with scandal.

In October 2004, in what has been described as France's Watergate, 12 people went on trial for running a phone-tapping operation used by the late president to monitor his opponents.

A few weeks later Francois Mitterrand's son Jean-Christophe received a suspended 30-month jail sentence for tax evasion.

Then in July 2005 Admiral Pierre Lacoste, the former head of the DGSE spy agency in France, confirmed Mitterrand had authorised the bombing of a Greenpeace boat, the Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland harbour, New Zealand, in 1985. The New Zealand government called the bombing the country's first terror attack.


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