World grieves in public and private for Mitterand

 

"A BAD death can spoil a life," the former president, Mr Francois Mitterrand, once said. Yesterday, it was clear that the man fascinated by death for most of his life had organised his own funeral down to the smallest details.

The funeral service itself, in Mr Mitterrand's home town of Jarnac, in the south western Charente department, was small, private and intimate. But a parallel, Requiem Mass in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris brought 61 kings, queens, princes, presidents and prime ministers to pay their last respects to the former president, who died from prostate cancer in Paris on Monday.

Many more foreign ministers represented more than 170 countries alongside the entire political class of France in the intensely moving farewell.

Outside Notre Dame, and in places associated with Mr Mitterrand all over the country, ordinary people gathered to mourn their former president. Flags hung at half mast through out France, and a minute's silence was observed in many schools and public offices as the joint Masses began at 11 a.m. Even the Paris Metro halted for a minute.

A man with more than 50 years in politics goes back a long way, and there were many faces from the past in Notre Dame alongside the heads of state and ministers in office.

Ireland was represented by the Taoiseach, Mr Bruton, and by the Minister for Finance, Mr Ruairi Quinn. Two of Mr Mitterrand's former Irish partners in Europe, Mr Charles Haughey and Mr Garret FitzGerald, also attended.

Protocol which put the longest serving leaders nearest the front in the cathedral led to some unlikely associations. The Cuban President, Dr Fidel Castro, sat between Prince Rainier of Monaco and the Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg.

In the rows behind were the US vice president, Mr Al Gore; President Boris Yeltsin of Russia, looking fit on his first foreign visit after his recent heart attack; King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain; Britain's Prince Charles; the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Shimon Peres; and the President of the Czech Republic, Mr Vaclav Havel.

As the opera singer, Barbara Hendricks, sang an extract from Gabriel Faure's Requiem, tears ran down the face of the German Chancellor, Dr Helmut Kohl, perhaps Mr Mitterrand's closest friend and ally in the European Union.

The Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger, spoke of the agnostic Mr Mitterrand's philosophical struggles with the notion of an afterlife.

Cardinal Lustiger quoted from the former president's last published writing, in which he noted the "spiritual desert" of our times which had left such an impoverished relationship with death among people whose hurry to live meant that they eluded its mystery.

Mr Mitterrand broke a taboo in deciding to have his coffin accompanied by both his widow Danielle and his mistress of 30 years, Ms Anne Pingeot, and by his two sons, Jean Christophe and Gilbert, as well as his illegitimate daughter Mazarine (21).

For Mazarine, whose existence was revealed by Paris Match in 1994, and her mother, it was their, first and probably their last official appearance.

Walking just behind Mrs Mitterrand and her sons, the two women, their arms tightly linked, followed the coffin from Mr Mitterrand's last apartment in the Avenue Frederic Le Play in Paris to the military base of Villacoublayn the early morning.

From there, according to the former president's wishes, the coffin, transported by a military freight aircraft to Cognac, was accompanied only by his three children and his black labrador Baltic, his companion during his innumerable country walks.

After receiving full military honours, the French tricolour was removed from the coffin in Jarnac so that Mr Mitterrand could enter the church of St Pierre, where he had been baptised, as an ordinary citizen.

Journalists and cameras were excluded from the simple Mass, attended by his family, his closest political friends and artists such ash the actor Gerard Depardieu.

Afterwards, the funeral procession, including Mr Mitterrand's two brothers and four sisters, stopped outside the modest house where he was born, before passing the building that was once his grandfather's vinegar factory, on the way to the family tomb in the town cemetery.

His inscription reads simply: Francois Mitterand 1916-1996.