Death of Danielle Mitterrand, Hailed Human Rights Activist (And François’ Wife, Too)

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Danielle Mitterrand at her home in Paris on October 3, 2011. (Photo: Miguel Medina / AFP /Getty Images)

It might be inviting to react to the death of former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand as the closing of the historical book on the legacy of her husband, France’s late president François Mitterrand. That reading, however, would unfairly short-change both the impact that Madame Mitterrand herself had on public affairs, and her determination to prevent her husband’s political career and responsibilities from dominating her own life. Though Danielle Mitterrand may have hated the well-lit center stage her powerful husband occupied, she refused to play second fiddle to anyone in the darker margins she occupied—including her presidential spouse.

Mrs. Mitterrand died Tuesday aged 87 in a Paris hospital a few days after being having been admitted for fatigue and breathing troubles. Despite her logical association with her Socialist husband, Madame Mitterrand’s death drew tributes from French conservatives and leftists alike—including those who ferociously oppose the emphatically leftist causes she championed. Indeed, despite Mrs. Mitterrand’s past support of popular uprisings—and denunciations of social and economic injustice she blamed on free markets, big business, and Wall Street—her life was hailed even by those who viewed her as a political foe.

“Neither setbacks nor victory caused her to deviate from the road she had laid for herself: giving voice to those that no one wanted to hear,” read a communiqué from rightist President Nicolas Sarkozy responding to her death. “(She) walked the exemplary path of a woman who never gave up on her values, and pursued to the end of her forces battles she considered just.”

Such praise for her engagement was not always so forthcoming, and not only due to the low profile she usually adopted. Though Madame Mitterrand took great pains to stay out of the spotlight that was forever trained on her powerful husband, the discomfort she felt with unnecessary public attention did not prevent her from thrusting herself into the center of action when she felt it necessary. Mid-way through her husband’s first term in 1986, Mrs. Mitterrand founded her France-Libertés human rights group that took the side of oppressed people in developing and affluent countries alike. Her positions both before and after her husband left the Elysée in 1995 led Madame Mitterrand to defend popular causes like the rights of Kurds and Tibetans, as well as taking controversial stands like backing Marxist rebels in El Salvador, befriending Mexico’s Subcomandante Marcos, and embracing Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Her more divisive positions (some of which were taken once her husband had left office) were not only decried as wildly leftist partisanship by French conservatives, but at times left even fellow Socialists critical of Mrs. Mitterrand’s political embrace of problematic allies (including Castro and his troubling human rights record). Yet far from disquieted about their potential diplomatic consequences, François Mitterrand appeared increasingly proud of his wife’s political advocacy—and her determination to wage battles she engaged in as a citizen without deference to his own presidential commitments.

By that point, however, Mitterrand could scarcely have been surprised by his wife’s strong, principled will and dedication to cause. Born Danielle Gouze in northeastern France, the future Mrs. Mitterrand entered the French Resistance to undermine Nazi occupation, and in 1944 met and married a fellow fighter using the assumed name François Morland. Both wound up being decorated following the war. The couple then had three children (one of whom died) as François Mitterrand led a tumultuous, at times controversial, but inevitably successful political ascent topped by 1981 and 1988 presidential wins. Despite her deep political convictions—which often leaned farther to the left of public policies her husband oversaw—Danielle Mitterrand avoided direct engagement in the murky and often treacherous milieu of domestic politics. She instead focused attention on defending what she considered victims of political oppression or assaults by big business interests. At times that left Madame Mitterrand looking more like a hold-over from France’s May 1968 uprising than the fellow-traveler spouse of a market-reconciled Socialist president of 1990s France.

Though such positions did not endear her to French conservatives and centrists, Madame Mitterrand nevertheless gained respect for principled stands in what struck many as dire causes. Some of those struck far closer to home—and in a more public manner–than she might have wanted. For example, Mrs. Mitterrand has resolutely stood by and proclaimed the innocence of one of her sons who has been investigated and tried in connection to an arms trafficking scandal. And far from cutting off her husband when he went public shortly before leaving office about the daughter he sired with his long time mistress, Danielle Mitterrand included that daughter among the intimate family members aside François Mitterrand’s coffin during his 1996 funeral. That was not a wife dutifully doing the bidding of her late man and master. It was rather a woman who always decided for herself what was right and wrong, putting her sense of decency and justice into practice even in this most personal — yet public — moment.