François Mitterand (Profile )

In the end, his skin was pulled tight over his bones in a waxen mask. And to some it seemed that his long battle with prostate cancer had distilled the essential inscrutability of a man whom opponents had once dubbed the Sphinx.

Mitterand, François (Profile)

In the end, his skin was pulled tight over his bones in a waxen mask. And to some it seemed that his long battle with prostate cancer had distilled the essential inscrutability of a man whom opponents had once dubbed the Sphinx. For 50 of his 79 years, François Maurice Marie Mitterrand had labored at the centre stage of French politics - for the last 14 of them as the longest-serving president of the Fifth Republic. But when he died last week of his own choice - by deliberately stopping his anti-cancer drugs, according to friends - he left the spotlight much as he had arrived: still an enigma to both his countrymen and the world.

Even Mitterrand's burial summed up the contradictions of his life. Often accused of arrogance and imperial airs, he had spurned a state funeral. Instead, while 1,300 dignitaries - including Canadian Gov. Gen. Roméo LeBlanc and an emotional Fidel Castro - gathered to pay tribute to him in Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral, he was laid to rest in the tiny churchyard of Jarnac, his native village in rural Cognac region, in a private ceremony he had choreographed. Behind the coffin walked his wife of 51 years, Danielle, and their two grown sons, followed by his longtime mistress, art historian Anne Pingeot, and their illegitimate daughter Mazarine, 21, whom he had publicly acknowledged only three months ago. That gesture had followed another shocker: in late 1994, he revealed the extent of his early support for the Nazi-backed wartime government of Marshal Philippe Pétain before his defection to the French Resistance. "He's the last major public figure of that wartime generation whose lives were marked by the absence of solid ground," says Toronto political writer John Ralston Saul. "And in a man like Mitterrand, you got this astonishing complexity."

In one of the dozen books he authored, Mitterrand once wrote that "history is the only important thing." He seemed determined to help shape his place in it. But last week, pundits struggled to pin down what he had believed in a career often characterized by such adjectives as Machiavellian and opportunistic. In France, where he had almost singlehandedly built the Socialist party into the country's leading political force, he had also presided over its ruin. As he stepped down, succeeded by his longtime neo-Gaullist rival Jacques Chirac last year, he left the country's chief institutions once more in the hands of conservative forces.

But on the larger continental stage, his legacy is indisputable. Forging an unlikely alliance with conservative German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who wept openly at his funeral, Mitterrand led the way in building a united Europe. In the process, he pitted himself against British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who made no secret of their mutual dislike. "His place in history is clear," says Saul. "On his tombstone I'd put: Europe."

Before leaving for India last week, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien lamented that "Canada has lost a friend." But when Mitterrand came to power in May 1981, the government of Pierre Trudeau was apprehensive. The memory of Charles de Gaulle's provocative 1967 proclamation, "Vive le Québec libre," still rankled. And as newly appointed Canadian ambassador Michel Dupuy arrived to present his credentials, "few people knew exactly where Mitterrand stood about Canada," recalls Dupuy, now Chrétien's heritage minister. "But he told me, 'Ambassador, I can assure you that as long as I sit here, there will not be any murderous little sentences shot by my ministers against Canada.' And I must say, he was true to his word."

In fact, when Mitterrand toured the country in 1987, he took such pains not to offend that some Quebecers were upset because he had never uttered the word Quebec. Finally, before a Gaspé crowd that included former premier René Lévesque, he rectified the omission with trademark ambiguity. "I say the word Québec," he intoned, "with love, respect and hope." Mitterrand never explained why he chose not to play the separatist card. But his first foreign minister, Claude Cheysson, confided that he valued Ottawa's periodic defiance of the United States. "If this disappeared," he told Dupuy, "we would not have as much interest in Canada."

For Mitterrand, Ronald Reagan's Washington was the enemy. Apoplectic that the French president had included four Communists in his cabinet, Reagan pulled out all the stops to thwart socialist policies, which included nationalizing the country's banks. By 1983, Mitterrand was forced to abandon his program.

To other politicians, that defeat might have been shattering. But Mitterrand had little interest in economics. Like Trudeau, he saw the world in the nuances of literature, not ideology. Presenting his ambassadorial credentials in 1985, Lucien Bouchard was charmed when the austere president suddenly observed, "In truth, we never come from anywhere except the land of our childhood." And it was to that landscape Mitterrand constantly returned - tramping the hills of the countryside near where he grew up, a stationmaster's son. Indeed, in a nation that has never come to terms with its wartime allegiances, the secret of Mitterrand's ambivalent half-century hold on France may lie in the fact that his contradictions mirrored those of his country.

Maclean's January 22, 1996