François Mitterrand’s love letters reveal passion for mistress

‘You were the chance of my life,’ late French president wrote to Anne Pingeot

Nobody else knew they existed. For decades, Anne Pingeot kept the 1,218 love letters she received from the late president François Mitterrand in old shoe boxes. Now she has decided to publish them to mark the centenary of Mitterrand's birth on October 26th.

One of Mitterrand’s successors bragged at a press conference:  “Carla and me, it’s the real thing.” Another sneaked off to assignations on the back of a motor scooter. By comparison, Mitterrand was a class act.

With his first missive to Pingeot, when she was 19, he sent a book they had discussed, about Socrates.

Letters to Anne; 1962-1995 and Diary for Anne; 1964-1970 will be published by Gallimard . The letters are tender and beautifully written. The diary is a replica of 22 A4 size scrapbooks that Mitterrand filled with poems and quotations, train tickets and hotel cards, the memorabilia of his love affair with Pingeot.

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Affair started

She was 20. He was a 47-year-old senator, already 12 times a cabinet minister and married with two teenage sons, when their affair started in August 1963. “When I met you I realised immediately that I was undertaking a great journey,” he wrote in November 1964. “There will never be absolute night for me again. The solitude of my death will be less solitude, Anne, my love.” He was, as

L’Obs

magazine noted, “the last president to venerate the French language”. What email or text message could compare with such prose?

Sensuality, paternal feelings and jealousy mingle in a letter dated July 16th, 1970. “I love you as one loves one’s child,” Mitterrand confesses. “. . . the joy that flows in me when I hold your mouth, the possession that burns me with all the fires of earth, my blood gushing in the depth of you, your pleasure that surges from the volcano of our bodies . . . Nothing else has existed . . . oh perfect incest . . . Imagining you belonging to another, physically, is atrocious.”

Pingeot, a historian of 19th century art, used to ride a bicycle with wicker baskets to work as the director of the Musée d’Orsay. Her father Pierre, an automobile executive and cousin of the Michelins, used to play golf with Mitterrand. She wore long skirts and had a classic beauty that prompted Mitterrand to say she looked like the subject she studied.

In politics, Mitterrand was Machiavellian and obsessively secretive. Six months after he was elected president in May 1981, he told Pingeot that he was suffering from terminal prostate cancer. He kept his illness secret until the end of his second term in 1995.

Though he more or less lived with them in an official residence near the Élysée, Mitterrand also went to extraordinary lengths to hide the existence of Pingeot and their daughter Mazarine, for example ordering wire-taps on journalists’ telephones.  If one feels uneasy reading his letters, it is because they are so intensely intimate, and because it’s hard to reconcile Mitterrand’s passion for Pingeot with the many other affairs he had during their liaison.

‘All the tricks’

In a pen portrait of her father, written when she was 13, Mazarine said he “knew all the tricks of life. Once when I was too nice with someone, he told me that I’d never get through life if I went on that way, that it was the law of the jungle. But he laughed when he said it . . . No one who sees him can know what he’s thinking inside.”

Fourteen months before his death, Mitterrand allowed paparazzi to photograph him with Mazarine, then aged 20, outside a fashionable restaurant. In January 1996, the country was fascinated to see Anne and Mazarine standing beside Mitterrand’s wife Danielle and their sons at his grave.

Mitterrand never publicly acknowledged his relationship with Pingeot. After a lifetime of discretion, she has allowed the books to be published as  "a way for her to confirm that she was the love of his life. She sacrificed everything for him", said Mitterrand's friend, the lawyer Georges Kiejman.

The letters and scrapbooks are her way of ensuring the other mistresses will be forgotten.

Pingeot was, like Mitterrand, from a Catholic, provincial, grande bourgeoise family. "I never knew anyone else. Neither before nor after,"she told the former BBC correspondent Philip Short in her only interview.

It was assumed that Mitterrand refused to divorce because it would have harmed his political career. Pingeot explained it differently: “He never abandoned a choice. Danielle was a choice he had made.”

Dying old man

The most moving letters were written when Mitterrand was a dying old man. “I didn’t see the years pass, nor the landmarks of age, since you were there . . . my young girl-woman, before me, with your grave face and beautiful smile,” he wrote in 1992. Less than four months before his death, Mitterrand wrote his last letter to Pingeot: “My happiness is to think of you and to love you. You always brought me more. You were the chance of my life.”

In her interview with Short, Pingeot explained Mitterrand’s hold over her. “Superior people enrich your life with their knowledge,” she said. “It is immense happiness to admire the person one loves . . . never to be bored, to share all interests . . . It was permanent renewal, 32 years of intense happiness . . . and unhappiness, because it was difficult. Francois used to say something I found marvellous: ‘The only lasting love is thwarted love’. . . when it is always difficult, love doesn’t die out.”