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François Mitterrand (President of the Republic, France)


Last modified: 2016-11-13 by ivan sache
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Mitterrand's standard - Image by Željko Heimer, 27 September 2004

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A short biography of François Mitterrand

François Mitterrand (1916-1996) started his political career in January 1942, employed by the Commission for the Rehabilitation of War Prisoners of the Vichy regime. In January 1943, the head of the commission, Maurice Pinot (1907-1980) was sacked because of his opposition to the collaboration with Germany; with several members of the Commission, Mitterrand included, he went underground and organized a resistance network. Mitterrand met de Gaulle in December 1946 in Algiers, who ordered him to merge his network with the Gaullist movement to form the National Movement of War Prisoners and Deported. In August 1944, after the liberation of Paris, Mitterrand was appointed interim Minister for a few months.
Elected deputy for the department of Nièvre on 10 November 1946, Mitterrand was affiliated to the Union démocratique et socialiste de la résistance (UDSR); this tiny party played a key role during the Fourth Republic, being a mandatory component of all governmental coalition. Accordingly, Mitterrand served 11 times as Minister between 194 and 1957. As the Minister of Overseas France (1950-1952), he initiated discussions with the African nationalist leaders and the decolonization process; as the State Minister of Justice (1955-1957), however, he signed the Decree transferring the exercise of justice in Algeria to the army, in spite of his public opposition to repression.
After the fall of the 4th Republic, François Mitterrand emerged as a main opponent to the political come-back of General of de Gaulle. Opposed to the Constitution of the 5th Republic, he was defeated in the next general elections. Following a controversial attempt against him in Paris, Mitterrand withdrew to the Nièvre, being elected in 1959 Mayor of Château-Chinon and Senator for the department of Nièvre. Elected Representative in 1962, he became President of the General Council of Nièvre in 1964. The same year, Mitterrand published his most famous book, Le coup d'état permanent, portraying de Gaulle as a dictator. With the support of the leftist parties, he challenged de Gaulle at the presidential election in 1965, unexpectedly forcing him to run a second round. In the aftermath of the election, he founded the Fédération de la gauche démocrate et socialiste (FGDS) as an umbrella organization encompassing the non-communist leftist parties.

In the congress held in Épinay in June 1971, Mitterrand took the control of the Socialist Party, promoting the union of all the leftist parties. The government programm "Change the life" was elaborated in March 1972; after long negotiations, the "Common Program" was validated on 26 June 1972 by the Communist Party. Mitterrand lost in 1974 the second round of the presidential elections to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. After the success of the Socialist Party in the municipal elections of 1977, the Communist Party broke the union of the left, which allowed the conservative parties to keep a thin majority in the general elections held in 1978.
In the next years, Mitterrand increased his leadership on the Socialist Party and concentrated his attacks towards Giscard d'Estaing. On 10 May 1981, he was elected in the second round of the presidential elections with 51.76% of the votes, helped by the division of the conservative parties and the open conflict between Giscard d'Estaing and his former Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac. The Socialist Party obtained the absolute majority at the National Assembly; the government led by Pierre Mauroy, including four Communist ministers, initiated several reforms, addressing some of the 110 points of Mitterrand's electoral program. The State Security Court and the military courts were suppressed; capital punishment was abolished on 9 October 1981. Decentralization was set up, the competencies of the territorial collectivities being dramatically increased. Culture was promoted, with an ambitious architectural program: the Bastille opera, the Louvre pyramid, the Great Arch at la Défense and the Institute of the Arab World were erected, stirring vivid controversy.
The economical results of the first years of Socialist government, taunted by the ill-organized nationalisation of the big companies, were disappointing, in spite of the unprecedented use of public funds. In 1983, the government changed course, announcing several austerity measures. Laurent Fabius succeeded Pierre Mauroy, while the Communists left the government.

The narrow victory of the conservative parties in the 1986 general elections initiated an unprecedented "cohabitation" between a President and a government led by the opposition. The rivalry between Mitterrand and his Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, confirmed the prediction once made by GIscard d'Estaing, who had argued that "the President would be the key actor in case of cohabitation". In the 1988 presidential election, Mitterrand easily defeated Chirac, obtaining 54. 02% of the votes in the second round. The leftist parties soon regained the majority at the National Assembly and Michel Rocard, the leader of the "second left", was appointed Prime Minister. Rocard promoted opening to the centrist parties and social dialogue, very often in strong opposition with the President; sometimes called the "second cohabitation", this second Gilded Age of the Socialist Party ended in 1991 with the resignation of Rocard. The next Prime Ministers, Édith Cresson and Pierre Bérégovoy, could not improve the economical situation and stop the raise of unemployment.
After the victory of the conservative parties in the 1993 general elections, Mitterrand appointed Édouard Balladur as the Prime Minister. The end of his second mandate was tarnished by the suicide of the former Prime Minister Pierre Bérégovoy and several other affairs. Mitterrand's controversial career in Vichy was disclosed, as well as his declining health and his family situation. He was also bitterly criticized, included by members of the Socialist Party he had brought to the power, for his alleged lack of foresight on the German reunification, the Yugoslavian wars, and the Rwanda genocide.
[Institut François Mitterrand]

Ivan Sache, 25 April 2016

Mitterrand's presidential standard

The personal flag of François Mitterrand is a French tricolor charged in the middle with his personal emblem, a golden hybrid tree, half oak and half olive tree.

The emblem was designed by Michel Disle, co-founder of the Carré Noir Agency. Gérard Caron and Michel Disle were commissioned in 1981 by André Rousselet, Director of the Presidential Staff, to design the emblem. Some ten other proposals had already been rejected by the President.
François Mitterrand originally asked for an emblem featuring an owl or goddess Athena, as a symbol of wisdom and vision. The designers convinced him to choose an emblem connected with the "quiet strength", the motto of his successful presidential campaign. Disle pointed out that a tree was featured in the coat of arms of Château-Chinon ["Azure an oak or on a base of the same"], the President's headquarters from 1959 to 1981, and on his family arms. The President accepted the tree, which should have roots as a symbol of origin, but should not stick too realistically to a specific tree.
Tree foliage is often used in the French Republican symbolic: laurel and olive branches, representing glory and peace, are often associated with oak leaves, representing justice, force and power. Such a foliage is represented on the national seal, on coins and medals, on the Légion d'Honneur, and on the stand of the National Assembly and the Senate.

Hybrid elements are eligible in heraldry; for instance, the arms of the Cinque-Ports include a half lion completed with a half boat hull.
Two "Republican species", of trees, compliant with the French tradition, were therefore associated in the emblem, the oak and the olive tree. These trees evoke the two main themes defended by the President, force and peace, and the North-South crusade.
The trees were designed in a modern, very refined way. The tree species are easily recognizable by the shape of the leaves and the fruits. The design had to be "classy", since it was to be featured on the presidential flag, airplane, headed notepaper...
The proposed emblem, first presented to André Rousselet, was validated by François Mitterrand on 19 December 1981.
[Admirable Design, 8 January 2003]

Ivan Sache, 25 April 2016