For Many in France, Mitterrand Lives On Ten years after his death, France's former socialist president Francois Mitterrand continues to inspire intense devotion -- especially in comparison to current President Jacques Chirac.
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For Many in France, Mitterrand Lives On

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For Many in France, Mitterrand Lives On

For Many in France, Mitterrand Lives On

For Many in France, Mitterrand Lives On

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Ten years after his death, France's former socialist president Francois Mitterrand continues to inspire intense devotion — especially in comparison to current President Jacques Chirac.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

The 10-year anniversary of the death of Francois Mitterrand has plunged France into a warm bath of nostalgia for its former president. Polls show that Mr. Mitterrand's popularity ratings are higher than any recent politician, on a par with Charles De Gaulle. While some people loved and others reviled the president who's often been compared to a monarch, Mr. Mitterrand seemed to leave no Frenchman indifferent. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: A decade after the death of France's first Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand is portrayed as the gold standard of French leadership. During his two-term, 14-year hold on power, Mitterrand is credited with elevating the French working class, building a united Europe and abolishing the death penalty. He also expanded France's impressive nuclear program, built the country's high-speed rail network, and decorated the French capital with grand buildings. Jacques Attali was Mitterrand's closest advisor for 10 years.

JACQUES ATTALI: France love always its past. There is also the nostalgia of a strong presidency, because France was stronger than today, not because France declined but because the President had more power in that time.

BEARDSLEY: Mitterrand biographer, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, says Mitterrand's activities as a Resistance fighter and his connections to Marshal Petain's Vichy regime reflect the ambivalence of many Frenchmen at the time.

FRANZ: (Through Translator) He wasn't really clean during the Second World War. At one point, he tried to be friends with Petain, with this awful regime was there. And on the other way, at the end, you know, he was resistant. And he has his name in the memoir of de Gaulle. But he was Petainist and Gaullist, like many French.

BEARDSLEY: A plethora of movies, television documentaries and more than 20 books on Mitterrand in the last year show the public's appetite for stories about the enigmatic late president. While his doctor and psychiatrist have written tell-all accounts, by far the biggest literary sensation was penned by Mitterrand's 30-year old illegitimate daughter, Mazarine Pingeot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRENCH MOVIE)

MAZARINE PINGEOT: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: But Mitterrand never abandoned his wife Danielle, and photos of his two families standing at his funeral mesmerized the country. Former advisor Attali says the revelations of a second family seemed only to heighten Mitterrand's popularity.

ATTALI: And the fact that he wasn't going to say, well, I love two women, that's it, and bold enough to say it before died, people were fascinated by that.

BEARDSLEY: But many politicians on the Right are scornful of what they call the cult surrounding Mitterrand. They point the country's massive debt, bloated civil service, and the 35-hour work week as Mitterrand's legacy. Axel Poniatowski is a leader of the ruling Conservative Party.

AXEL PONIATOWSKI: We don't think he did lead the country in the right direction. In fact, I think that the beginning of our problems came with Francois Mitterrand's policy, and I think a lot of people just remember some of the good times.

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley, in Paris.

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