François Mitterrand badly wanted to leave a mark, an imprint. Not just a statistical mention in the annals, which he is bound to get as the only French president to have served two full terms (fourteen years) or the first socialist to be elected president through universal suffrage. But does he deserve a real place in history as shaper of things and, if so, will it be as the unifier of the French left or as the destroyer of its dreams? These questions suggest the ambiguity of the great performer.

It was in the Cognac country that Mitterrand was born seventy-nine,years ago into a conservative Catholic family. As such, we now know, he fitted quite naturally into Maréchal Pétain’s Vichy administration during the war. Yet he ended that conflict as a leader of the Resistance and must be judged by his subsequent political record, which can be neatly subdivided into three periods: twelve years in office, twenty-three in permanent opposition and, finally, the Presidency.

The first period stretched till 1958 and coincided with the Fourth Republic. Dark and handsome, Mitterrand was an active participant in its government merry-go-round. He was minister in eleven governments and, by way of analogy with Machiavelli, was known as a “Florentine.”

The second period began in May 1958, when General de Gaulle, brought back to power by the settlers and the French commanders in Algeria, set up the Fifth Republic. More ambitious now, Mitterrand saw himself as the general’s challenger. He also developed a genuine strategy. The left in France, it assumed, could win only if it was united (in other words, if it included the Communists), but its victory would be accepted only if the non-Communist left was the senior partner of the alliance. Mitterrand determined to stick to that line through thick and thin, though when he started he certainly did not guess that final success would involve twenty-three years in the wilderness. He did not know how he would gain leadership or how he would elaborate a “common program” with the Communists. He did not even know that one day he would become a Socialist.

Mitterrand joined the Socialist Party and took it over at the same time during the famous Epinay congress of 1971, and at once started talking socialism with the zeal of a newcomer. He promised “a break with capitalism” and thundered that “big business (le grand capital), master of levers of economic and political command, remains enemy number one, with which there can be no possible compromise.” Did he believe what he was saying? Not quite. On the other hand, you don’t talk like that for years without being affected. As he was at last poised to seize the presidential prize, in 1981, Mitterrand probably saw himself as a socialist reformer who would take France somewhere beyond the Swedish model.

But he was no man to “go to the bottom with his principles around his neck.” Having violently attacked the Gaullist institutions of authoritarian rule, he found them quite convenient once he took power. Without popular mobilization and pressure from below, however, the left stood no chance, particularly since its rather Keynesian economic program, conceived in a period of prosperity, was bound to meet outside hostility. The government first got bogged down and then rapidly surrendered; if he was not to gain laurels as a socialist reformer, Mitterrand was out to win them as a ”normalizer.” From 1983 onward, with their policy of austerity and financial orthodoxy, the Socialists were getting the blessing of the Bourse and other stock exchanges, but lost the backing of some of their own supporters. The left was thus defeated in the parliamentary elections of 1986, providing the Fifth Republic with its first bout of cohabitation between a president and a Parliament of different political complexion. The victorious right, however, blundered so much that the astute Mitterrand managed to get re-elected. Not until 1993 was the parliamentary assembly, and in 1995 the presidency, to be won back by the right. In opposition, Mitterrand used to inveigh against the corrupting power of “money that rots the very conscience of the people,” yet his Socialists left the stage in a climate of corruption and putrefaction.

In the funeral orations François Mitterrand was congratulated for the role he played, together with Helmut Kohl, in furthering Europe’s integration. But he is praised essentially for bringing the left into the fold, for merging France into the Western world and its pattern of consensus politics. He is lauded for converting France to alternance, a word that Anglo-Saxons neither know nor need to, because it simply means that Democrats follow Republicans, or Labor the Conservatives, and vice versa. In France, until 1981, such a succession was not seen as normal, because it was assumed that if a left including the C.P. won an election, it would involve not a change of government but a change of regime, of the system as a whole: Then Mitterrand got elected and hell did not break loose–wherein one can see the genuine meaning of his “achievement.” Alternance was seen as “dangerous” in France because the French left believed in a radical alternative; because it considered that society, and hence life, could be altered by collective political action. It is by destroying the belief that Mitterrand is deemed to have converted France to the consensus.

If this is his claim to fame, he does not deserve the gratitude of the people who danced at the Bastille on the night of his election. (Indeed, the strikes that paralyzed the country in December suggest the conversion was far from complete.) François Mitterrand will doubtless be remembered for the changes he brought to the Parisian skyline with the pyramid of the Louvre, the Arch, the opera at the Bastille and the Great Library. He may also be remembered as the president who finally abolished the death penalty. But it is also to be hoped that he will go down as only a temporary destroyer of the dreams of the left, as a president who had merely the illusion of shaping fate.