François Mitterrand was born on October 26, 1916, in Jarnac, France. Mitterrand served with the French forces during World War II. In 1971, he became secretary of the Socialist Party and tried to unify the French Left. He was elected president in 1981 and was re-elected in 1988, retiring at the end of that term. In 1991, Mitterrand appointed France's first female prime minister, Edith Cresson. He retired after completing his second term in office in 1995, and died in Paris in 1996.
Student and Soldier
French statesman and president François Mitterrand was born on October 26, 1916, in Jarnac, France. One of eight children, Mitterrand grew up in a middle-class, Catholic family. His father worked as a stationmaster for a railroad company. Mitterrand attended College Saint-Paul in Angouleme. In 1934, he moved to Paris to continue his education. There, he studied law and politics at the University of Paris.
Around this same time, Mitterrand showed an interest in right-wing politics and was reportedly a member of a conservative paramilitary group called the League of National Volunteers. After the start of World War II, Mitterrand served in the French Army. Wounded in battle in June 1940, he was taken prisoner, but escaped from a German prisoner of war camp in Kassel, Germany, the following year.
Making his way back to France, Mitterrand found work as an official, helping former prisoners of war with the Marshall Philippe Petain-run Vichy government. He kept his involvement with this Nazi-backed regime hidden from the public for decades, in fear of being labeled a collaborator. Mitterrand took pride, however, in his history as a member of the French Resistance. He joined the underground movement in 1943, working to organize former prisoners of war to fight for France's freedom. Through his work with the Resistance, Mitterrand met General Charles de Gaulle.
After the war ended, François Mitterrand served in de Gaulle's interim government. He won election to the National Assembly in 1946. Positioned initially as a centrist, Mitterrand held a number of government posts over the years. He acted as the minister for war veterans, minister for interior and minister for justice during this time.
Mitterrand's political career came to a halt in the late 1950s, after he loudly opposed de Gaulle's creation of the Fifth Republic. As a result, he lost his Assembly seat in the 1958 election. For many years afterward, Mitterrand remained a stubborn opponent of de Gaulle. He even ran against de Gaulle for the presidency in 1965, but lost.
A few years later, Mitterrand fared better with a shift in his political ideolog: Working for unification of the French Left, he became secretary of the Socialist Party in 1971. With the backing of the country's Socialists and Communists, Mitterrand tried again for the presidency in 1974. He lost to Giscard d'Estaing by a narrow margin. Seven years later, however, he defeated d'Estaing to clinch France's top political post.
President of France
Following 1981 victory, Mitterrand embarked on a program of social and political reforms, seeking to nationalize banks and other businesses and improve workers' pay. He worked on job creation in an attempt to combat stagnation and unemployment, and successfully campaigned for abolition of the death penalty.
The Socialists lost the majority in the National Assembly in 1986, forcing Mitterrand to work with the country's growing political right. More specifically, he had to find a way to cooperate with Prime Minister Jacques Chirac from 1986 to 1988. Mitterrand was re-elected president in 1988, becoming the first French politician to twice win election by popular vote in the country's history. With German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, he forged the Treaty of Maastricht on European union in 1991. That same year, he appointed France's first female prime minister, Edith Cresson (she only remained in the post for a short time).
France's increasingly troubled economy contributed to a decline in Mitterrand's last years as president. He also battled health problems during this time, undergoing two operations for prostate cancer while still in office.
In 1995, Mitterrand resigned after completing his second term. His longtime rival, Jacques Chirac, succeeded him as France's president. During Mitterrand's retirement, revelations emerged of his friendship with wartime Vichy collaborators, political corruption and extra-marital affairs.
Mitterrand died in Paris on January 8, 1996, at the age of 79. He was survived by his wife, Danielle (m. 1944-1996); two sons, Jean-Christophe and Gilbert; and daughter, Mazarine Pingeot (whom he'd had with his mistress, Anne Pingeot).
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