Danielle Mitterrand, former French first lady, dies at 87

Publié le par The Washington Post - Jamey Keaten

pThe Washington Postublished 23/11/2011 at 18:24 by Jamey Keaten

Danielle Mitterrand, a decorated member of the French Resistance and combative advocate for the poor who broke the mold as first lady alongside France’s first Socialist president, died Nov. 22 at a hospital in Paris. She was 87.

Mitterrand DanielleHer death was confirmed by her foundation, France Libertes, which did not disclose the cause.

An avowed leftist, Mrs. Mitterrand turned the 14-year presidential tenure of her husband, Francois Mitterrand, into her own bully pulpit — one that long outlasted him.

He died of cancer less than a year after leaving office in 1995. In an especially poignant moment in modern French politics, Mrs. Mitterrand stood before the president’s coffin alongside his mistress and daughter, whose out-of-wedlock birth and existence were long kept secret from the French public.

A determined if soft-spoken activist, Danielle Mitterrand advocated many left-leaning causes, supporting Marxist rebels in El Salvador and ethnic minorities such as Kurds and Tibetans, and vociferously opposing capitalist excess.

Mrs. Mitterrand created several charities and crisscrossed the world in defense of human rights. France Libertes, whose focus has been human rights and had recently made a top priority of getting drinking water to those without it around the world, said Mrs. Mitterrand left behind “a message of hope.”

Despite her timid demeanor and gentle voice, Mrs. Mitterrand urged worldwide unity among “new Resisters” to “put an end to economic and financial dictatorship, the henchman of political dictators. Finally, they seem to be shaken by the anger of peoples.”

Well before the Occupy movement took on Wall Street, Mrs. Mitterrand told Le Figaro newspaper in 1996: “Of course, the world revolves around the Dow Jones, the Nikkei stock index or the CAC 40 [French stock index]. . . . But all around the world, little voices are being raised to say that man is unhappy even if the stock market is doing well.”

She reiterated that theme last month in an interview with RTL radio: “Everybody knows that the foundation of the system today is money: Money is the guru, money decides everything . . . that’s why we are working to get out of this system.”

Praise and appreciation for her poured in from across France’s political spectrum Tuesday.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said: “Neither the setback or the victory caused her to deviate from the road she had laid for herself: giving a hearing to the voice of those that no one wanted to hear.”

Ever outspoken, Mrs. Mitterrand in 2008 denounced U.S. support for foes of Bolivia’s leftist President Evo Morales and accused “fascist gangs” of intimidating native peoples in the South American country.

Thirteen years ago, she made a prison visit to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther who has spent nearly 30 years on death row after his 1982 conviction for killing a white police officer in Philadelphia.

She was no novice at defending her convictions. As a young woman, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her work in the Resistance during the Nazi occupation in World War II.

Danielle Emilienne Isabelle Gouze was born Oct. 29, 1924, in Verdun, a town in northeastern France known as one of World War I’s biggest killing fields.

Under the Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime during World War II, her father, a Socialist-leaning school principal, lost his job after refusing a state order to list all Jewish students and teachers for authorities, according to a biographical brief of Mrs. Mitterrand provided by her foundation.

In March 1944, she went underground in the Burgundy hills with the Resistance. That year, she met and married Francois Mitterrand, who had joined up under the code name “Francois Morland.” They had three sons together, one of whom, Pascal, died at a young age. Survivors include two sons, Gilbert and Jean-Christophe.

For years, Mrs. Mitterrand kept quiet about a secret relationship that her husband had had with Anne Pingeot, a museum curator who was 28 years his junior and mother of his long-secret daughter, Mazarine Pingeot.

As first lady, Mrs. Mitterrand shucked the tradition of her predecessors who largely kept to the background. In a 1986 interview with the Associated Press, her blue eyes flashed at the suggestion she resembled a high-profile American first lady.

“There is no traditional role” for a first lady, Mrs. Mitterrand said. “Each woman has her own personality and . . . acts according to her conscience and her sensibilities.”

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