“I will help you to live. You will help me to die,” François Mitterrand used to tell his last, secret mistress, whose existence has just been revealed, a quarter of a century after Mitterrand’s death.
Mitterrand was quoting a letter by the first World War leader Georges Clémenceau to his last love, Marguerite Baldensperger, who was 42 years his junior.
Mitterrand surpassed Clémenceau. “Claire”, the pseudonym he chose for the young woman with whom he had an affair for the last eight years of his life, was born 50 years after the French president.
Mitterrand knew in 1981, the year of his election, that he was suffering from prostate cancer, but kept it secret for 11 of his 14 years in office. Likewise, his double life, between his wife Danielle and their sons, and his mistress Anne Pingeot and their daughter, was not revealed until 14 months before his death in January 1996.
Now France has learned that Mitterrand was in fact leading a triple life.
Mitterrand rang Claire twice daily for those eight years. A few days before his death, the receiver fell from his hand and someone else hung it up
It took Solenn de Royer, a political journalist for Le Monde newspaper, a decade to persuade Claire to tell her story. The Last Secret will be published on October 6th. Claire shared with Royer momentos of the affair – the audio-cassettes of Mitterrand’s voice on her telephone answering machine; the photographs she took of him inside the Élysée Palace.
Claire moved to Paris at the age of 18, to study law. In rebellion against conservative parents, she became an avid socialist. For four years, she and a friend stalked then president Mitterrand, waiting for hours outside his apartment in the rue de Bièvre, following him on his trips to the provinces. In 1988, he accepted Claire’s invitation to lunch in her tiny apartment in the rue du Four.
That was the first time Mitterrand kissed Claire, then aged 22. She panicked. “He courts her as if in a 19th century novel,” Royer told Elle magazine. “He is tender, delicate, patient. He waits until she is ready. They spend hours fully clothed in one another’s arms, like teenagers... From the beginning he tells her, ‘I have nothing to give you. It will be moments, fragments that you may live intensely’.”
The gendarmes, secretaries and presidential advisers at the Élysée grow accustomed to Claire’s visits. She and the president walk together in the Tuileries, Saint-Germain-des-Prés and along the Seine, dine in restaurants. She sometimes accompanies him on official journeys. The difference in their ages is so great that it occurs to no one they could be lovers.
Claire feels betrayed by Mitterrand twice. In September 1992, she learns from the television news that he has undergone an operation for prostate cancer. When the extreme right-wing newspaper Minute publishes a front-page story about Mitterrand’s “secret home” with Anne Pingeot on the quai Branly, Claire is furious. “You’re not going to believe that rag?” he tells her.
A year and a half later, Paris Match confirms the story with a cover photograph of Mitterrand and Mazarine, the secret daughter he had with Pingeot. Claire throws another tantrum. The ageing, ailing president absorbs his young mistress’s fury without protest. “I don’t even know which one of them I am jealous of, the mother or the daughter,” Claire told Royer.
Mazarine is eight years younger than Claire. On one of Claire’s visits to the Élysée, the deputy secretary-general of the palace mistakes Mitterrand’s mistress for his daughter, and congratulates her on her acceptance to the École Normale Supérieure.
In one of the most discomfiting passages of the book, Mitterrand and Claire share a last lunch of leftovers in his apartment at the Élysée on the day he moves out, in May 1995. Mitterrand’s wife Danielle joins them, without ever acknowledging Claire’s presence.
Mitterrand rang Claire twice daily for those eight years. A few days before his death, the receiver fell from his hand and someone else hung it up.
The Last Secret is the story of a man who, facing the loss of power and death from cancer, is distracted by a young woman’s love. When Claire asks him what place she fills in his life, he replies: “You will stay until the end.”
“He knew that this woman would survive him ... that she would cherish his memory and that it was a way of prolonging his life,” Royer says. “He told her at the end, ‘You will miss me for 60 years’. Mitterrand was a mystic. One is not totally dead when one lives in the hearts and minds of those one has loved.”