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François Mitterrand studied law and politics in Paris, and during World War II he came to prominence in the resistance after initially working in Marshal Pétain’s Vichy administration.
In 1945 he was elected as deputy for Nièvre, as the member of a small centre-left Resistance-based party.
After a successful ministerial career under the Fourth Republic, holding posts in 11 governments between 1947 and 1958, he opposed General Charles de Gaulle’s creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958, and formed a Federation of the Left.
In 1965 he challenged de Gaulle unsuccessfully for the presidency, and in 1971, as leader of the new Socialist Party (PS), he negotiated an electoral pact and Common Program of Government with the Communist Party. He failed to win the presidency once again in 1974, this time against Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
He was finally elected president in 1981 and served two successive terms between 1981 – 1988 and 1988 – 1995, establishing PS as the most popular party in France.
From 1982 his administrations reverted from redistributive policies to economic orthodoxy and maintenance of the ”strong franc” (linked to the Deutschmark) – despite the high levels of unemployment this entailed – and vigorously pursued further European integration.
His ambitious program of social, economic and institutional reforms was hampered by deteriorating economic conditions after 1983, and when the socialists lost their majority in March 1986, Mitterrand was compelled to work with the Gaullist Jacques Chirac as prime minister.
Mitterrand grew in popularity and defeated Chirac’s bid for the presidency in May 1988. In 1993 he entered a second term of ”cohabitation” with the conservative prime minister Edouard Balladur.
Towards the end of his presidency, Mitterrand’s failing health weakened his hold on power. Whereas he was able to enhance his reputation when ”cohabiting” with Chirac, the successful elements of Balladur’s premiership contrasted with Mitterrand’s waning popularity and weakened influence.
Following his death in 1996, a controversy erupted when his former physician, Dr Claude Gubler, wrote a book called Le Grand Secret (“The Great Secret”) explaining that Mitterrand had false health reports published since November 1981 to hide his cancer.
Mitterrand’s family prosecuted Gubler and his publisher for violating medical secrecy.
In 2005 it was revealed that President Mitterrand had personally authorised the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (the French foreign intelligence service) to bomb the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior on 10 July 1985 as it was anchored in the port of Auckland, New Zealand.
The explosion sank the ship – which was in New Zealand preparing to protest against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific – and killed freelance Dutch photographer, Fernando Pereira.