His official portrait showed him in front of a library, reading the ‘essays’ of Montaigne. A sign foreshadowing the great cultural and humanist reforms to be accomplished during his reign. Thus, is how he chose to reveal himself to the French. Yet, first known as an opponent to the Fifth Republic, he wrote the “permanent coup d’état” as the final structural reform accomplished by General de Gaulle, granted to the people the capacity to elect, themselves and directly, the President of the Republic. Still in the opposition, he ran for the first time to the Presidency in 1965 as the candidate of the left; but lost to the General. A legend yet to be finished for one, and a destiny yet to be fulfilled for the other. Only in 1981, will he finally reach the steps of the Elysée Palace. The first socialist President in the Fifth Republic, after 23 years in the opposition. But he becomes the only man in its history to receive twice a mandate of seven years, extending his hold over the presidency until 1995. Along his rule, we remember great measures such as the abolition of the death penalty, but also a cultural policy of a never before scale. 

“A cultural policy is at the basis of all other policies”, he declared, “so that the French be able to find themselves in their history, art and past, in order for them to look toward their future with ambition”. The Grand Louvres and its pyramid, the National Library, even the finishing of the Musée d’Orsay, we owe these great monuments to him, and so many more. But what made his rule so unique? Did he really distance himself from a “Monarchic” lecture of the presidential power? If so, then why the nickname of “the Prince”, so often granted to him by the press? In short, how did François Mitterrand, an opponent of the regime from its very beginning and the first ever Socialist President of the Republic, established his authority along nearly fourteen years in power? That is what in this third part, I have tried to answer.

A continuation of the Monarchic lecture.

François Mitterand’s official portrait. 1981.

François Mitterrand’s arrival to power marks the third succession of the presidency since the departure of General de Gaulle. More importantly, with him, it represents the first time in the history of the new regime, that the socialist party (PS) after 23 years, leaves the opposition to reach the Élysée. Accomplishing the first phenomenon of “alternance” in France. Along his career prior his election as President of the Republic, Mitterrand proved to be a fierce opponent of de Gaulle’s practice as president and his ideology. In 1965 Mitterrand lost the Presidential elections in the second ballot against the General as he only obtained 45%, yet it was certainly a strong blow against the General, who expected to be elected immediately in the first ballot and had to contend himself with only more than 50% of the suffrage. 

The most important element opposing the two men can be observed with the ideological divide toward the constitutional reform of 1962. If with this reform, de Gaulle hoped to provide a legitimacy for the Presidentialisation of the regime, Mitterrand then, faithful to the parliamentary tradition of the regime, only saw this as a permanent coup to reinforce the powers of the presidential institution against the traditional representation of the nation: the parliament. The distance of ideology seemed stronger as the night of his election in 1981, Mitterrand declared that the ‘French people had chosen change’. However, it can argued that as soon as he reached the Presidency, Mitterrand took up the traditional mantle of the President of the Republic and embraced all its attributes. No less, he recognized the legitimacy of the institutions he had previously fought against, and continued the presidential practice de Gaulle had previously established. Firstly, as soon as Mitterrand began his mandate, he sought to perpetuate the symbolic aspect of the President of the Republic as a support for his future policies and uses of the presidential powers. Northcutt (1991) states that on the day of investiture, Mitterrand’s visit to the Pantheon served as a symbolic strategy to provide to the PS and himself and historical legitimacy and most importantly, so that Mitterrand may inscribe himself as part of the continuity in the Fifth Republic. The event was illustrated as follows: the new President, enters alone into the National shrine for heroes. In a scene only transcribed by television, Mitterrand walks to the tombs of three heroes he had previously selected. On top of those tombs, roses are deposited – the symbol of the socialist party. Among these heroes are Victor Schoelcher, a politician during the revolution who worked in favour of the abolition of slavery; Jean Jaurès, a figure of the Third Republic and an icon of French socialist values, also one of the main actor drafting the law separating the State and the Church; and finally Jean Moulin, a socialist and resistant during the Second World War. Moulin was a close ally of General de Gaulle and is commonly seen in France as one of the many faces of the Resistance. In honouring these carefully selected individuals Mitterrand sought to inscribe his presidency in the lineage of France’s Republican and Socialist history, providing a symbolic legitimacy to the arrival of the socialists to power. With the recognition of Jean Moulin, a close link to de Gaulle’s personal context, Mitterrand successfully attempt to place himself as the heir of de Gaulle. Additionally, in the scenography framing of his visit in such way, Mitterrand incorporates the symbolic apparatus of the President, the highest incarnation of the nation, coming to pay his respect to some of its heroes, and thus places his presidency in the continuity. This use of symbols around the President can create a resurgence of charisma in the modern rational system of the Fifth Republic, and can according to Runciman (1963), allow someone such as Mitterrand to ‘create a further legitimacy for actions going beyond his stipulated office’. 

This argument is supported with the policy of the ‘Grand travaux’ – an architectural policy package from Mitterrand, focusing on the construction and implementation of various cultural sites. In it, scholars have argued that Mitterrand pursue a sovereign practice of the decision making, acting without any contingencies from his cabinet and reserving to himself the final word. Early in his mandate, Mitterrand faced the necessity to implement measures of austerity due to the economic climate, he nonetheless managed to produce a costly cultural policy – involving various sites – and retained a complete authority over the process. Motivated by fear to see his project limited, he managed in such a way that he purposely sought to distance his Prime Minister, Pierre Mauroy, and the Minister of Finances from the project. Although the constitution of the Fifth Republic planned that all decisions would emanate from the government, implying the council of ministers, and that the Prime Minister would, if not lead the government, at least, take part in the decision making as he is defined as its chief. François Mitterrand circumvented the constitutional requisition by the presidential capacity – although with no textual support – of naming some of his collaborators as charged of a project; he thus created an informal cabinet with full authority upon the ‘Grand Travaux’. More importantly, this cabinet – composed mostly with Mitterrand’s collaborators and only member of government, his Minister of Culture, Jack Lang – were to be only responsible to the President of the Republic, and not the Prime Minister. This authority, although not defined by the constitution, was repeatedly imposed by Mitterrand in his injunctions exchanged by notes to one of the members of the group. In these notes Mitterrand legitimated his authority upon the fact that contrary to his Prime Minister, his presence in the executive is assured by his link to the nation as only the President, elected by the nation and given a mandate for seven years uninterrupted is guaranteed to remain. Thus, even though the project and the constitutional logic would require the presence and council of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance, Mitterrand succeeded to retain his authority and distance any potential opposition to the project upon the fact that he is elected by the French nation for seven years, as well as the symbolic such parameter brings. By reminding such element, it can argued that Mitterrand imply the symbolic fact that the President incarnate the first representative of the nation, the one incarnating the executive power and thus, who decides with whom he desires to share it. Mitterrand therefore used the same symbolism previously established in the regime by de Gaulle to extend the Presidential primacy, in French as the ‘domaine reserve’, on the area of culture and retain authority over this policy. Moreover, in seeking to exercise authority on this specific project, Mitterrand reminds of France’s symbolic architectural tradition echoing on Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, Georges Pompidou and most particularly – by the size of his project – to France’s ‘builder-king’ Louis XIV. By seeking to complete these projects under his mandate, Mitterrand sought to incorporate the symbolic value of the Grand Travaux to his Presidency as he inaugurated most of the sites himself; the most notable inauguration was with the use of the new Arch of La Défense, a symbol of architectural innovation, which Mitterrand used to host his international economic summit. Overall, with the case of Mitterrand’s visit at the Pantheon on his first day, and his manoeuvring of the Grand Travaux policy, it seems that instead of presenting this “change” he promised, Mitterrand followed on the path of Monarchic Presidency, and through a symbolic use of a power, extended the Presidential primacy over the domain of art and architecture.

The Presidency, under the cohabitation logic of parliamentary majority

Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand at the European Summit of The Hague. 1986. A symbol of the “cohabitation”.

Although the most part of his first mandate signed the continuation of a uncontested Presidential power, capable of acting beyond its defined role and without any counterpowers – echoing to de Gaulle’s – it is however, by the end of his mandate, in 1986, that one can observe how the power of the President is not independent from parliament. After the first phenomenon of “alternance”, and with the defeat of the Presidential majority in the legislative elections of 1986, this opened the way to a first period of “cohabitation” lasting until the end of Mitterrand’s first mandate (1988). In which, contrary to the traditional vision of the Fifth Republic, a dyarchy is formed within the executive. In short, as the Presidential majority lost, the President’s capacity is then circumscribed, shifting away from the Monarchic lecture of the Fifth Republic in favour of a parliamentary reading. And with the majority now deriving from the party of opposition, the President could either resign – as the people decided not to grant him a majority capable to support his propositions – or he must name the next Prime Minister from the majoritarian party, with him who obtain the support of the legislative, they would form a government favouring the ideology of the majority in the parliament. Parliament would hold a control of the executive. In the case of Mitterrand’s cohabitation, the President named in 1986 Jacques Chirac, leader of the majority RPR as Prime Minister, and under his recommendation, they would form a new government which would gain the support of the majoritarian right wing party. Due to the broad constitutional text and under this situation, the opposed parliamentary majority would succeed to further circumvent the position of the President as the chief of the executive in profit of the PM. His role being defined under the articles 20 and 21 the PM as the one “determining and conducting the policy of the nation”, and the government accountable to parliament as the one making the decisions of the executive, Chirac used this definition in order for his function to regain its constitutional definition and to legitimate himself as the one making the decisions within the executive, not the President. The President, who in practice was the one making the decisions can no longer act as such and is therefore pushed back to its textual definition. This use of the texts results in a constitutional balance of powers in the semi-presidential system in which the Prime Minister due to the constitution and the support of parliament see his authority over the decision-making regained and can therefore govern instead of the President over almost all areas of the policy, with a responsibility to parliament. As such, Chirac announced when invested that the great axis of his national policy which he declared, focusing on economic and social recovery, were intended to be applied “alongside the majority in parliament”. Hence, began a policy from the Prime Minister, focusing on social issues and economic position such as privatization, in opposition with the President of the Republic’s position. By the two remaining years of his first mandate, the phenomenon of cohabitation posed a new challenge to François Mitterrand’s authority, Parliament strongly reducing his position as the “chief policy maker” in profit of his Prime Minister. A challenge which was yet to be overcome.

The diarchy in the executive

François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac at the Hotel de Ville of Paris. 1994.

In the years between 1996 and 1988, “cohabitation” had proven that the President’s position over the executive can depend upon his support from parliament, as Mitterrand was pushed to name Chirac as Prime Minister in charge of conducting the policy of the executive. However, although the constitution in the case of cohabitation suggest that the President must share his power with the Prime Minister supported by parliament, Mitterrand did not became a powerless President losing his authority to the Prime Minister. Instead during this period of cohabitation Mitterrand was still capable to obstruct the policy of the government led by the Prime Minister thus impacting on the authority of the latter. As an example, he successfully stemmed the action of the Chirac government by refusing to sign the proposed decrees on privatization in accordance with the constitutional definition of his function, in which the article 13 gives to Mitterrand only, the responsibility to sign the decrees. He additionally justified his action in a televised interview over the fact the article 5 of the constitution grants him the role of “guarantor of the nation” and thus that he could not sign a decree he considered capable to “impact negatively on the national interest”. Therefore, Mitterrand made use of the symbols of the Gaullist Republic in order to be seen as eminent and justify his decision. Additionally, although in cohabitation and incapable of influencing much of the domestic policies, Mitterrand succeeded in maintaining his Primacy over the areas of Foreign Policy and Defence. He even stated concerning the NATO coordinated action, “I am deterrence” firstly implying that nuclear dissuasion and France Foreign Policy derives only from the President of the Republic not the Prime Minister but also resonating to Louis the XIV’s famous quote “I am the State”, marking his emancipation from his Ministers.

Mitterrand successfully retained his prerogatives over these areas upon the fact that the articles 15 and 5 of the constitution place the President as the chief of the armies and guarantor of the nation’s independence and integrity. By placing himself as defender of the nation referring to his constitutional role, Mitterrand sought to use a second reference to de Gaulle, as he personally incarnated this function and drafted the constitution. This reference allowed him to obtain a consensus upon his policies in these domains and retain his authority over it. Finally it could be argued that being in a divided government actually does not make the President less powerful, but instead strategically strengthens him. Indeed, Helms (2019) claimed that if a President had less resources, but was seen using them efficiently, it allows him to be recognized as eminent along this period of cohabitation and even favours him in his re-election. This argument was also corroborated by Northcutt (1991), as Mitterrand by this strategy succeeded to prepare for re-election and during the campaign that opposed him to his Jacques, he even successfully established a subordinate position of his Prime Minister during the presidential debate. Mitterrand ultimately was re-elected for another seven years in 1988 with 54% ahead of his opponent Jacques Chirac, even though two years before, he was forced to surrender some of his powers to him. 

Overall, the Presidency of François Mitterrand though pushed through the colours of promises of change, was quickly marked by a continuation of de Gaulle’s doctrine and a presidential practice. The one who wrote the “permanent coup d’état” finally embodied the powers of this new function in his own interests. 

The remaining part of his first mandate demonstrated that these powers could be restricted, yes, but Mitterrand has proven that although the parliamentary logic of the Fifth Republic can introduce a dyarchy within the executive, the President does not become powerless. In fact, he comes out stronger than expected. Leaning on his constitutional definition and the symbolic of his function, he succeeded to retain during the cohabitation, the capacity to obstruct the activity of the opposed government and to maintain a prerogative over some areas of the policy making. It is instead during the cohabitation that Mitterrand was seemingly the most powerful, with each of his decisions justified by his role of guarantor of the national interest. By the end of his second mandate, François Mitterrand knows a second cohabitation. Losing the legislative elections of 1993 to the RPR, he must choose another Prime Minister from the right. This time it is Édouard Balladur. Experienced from the first cohabitation, a relationship seemingly in agreement is established between the Élysée and Matignon, known under the nickname of the “velvet cohabitation”. Yet none of these challenges have seemed to obstruct the image history made of Mitterrand. When asked whom he believed was his favourite President, François Hollande, the second President of the Republic from the socialist party said “In the historic sense of the term, Charles de Gaulle, but in my eyes, the best President of the Republic was François Mitterrand”. An appreciation which reached even across the aisle as both Presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, placed him in high esteem in their memoirs as a one of the great President of our Republic. It is also in front of the Grand Louvres and its large glass pyramid a renowned project of Mitterrand, that Emmanuel Macron made his victory speech on election night in 2017, an entrance covered under Beethoven’s symphony n°9, a common European symbol which attached to this monument, seek to suggest that Macron holds a same dedication to the European project than President Mitterrand did. Mitterrand ended his mandate in 1995 with the inauguration of the Bibliothèque National de France, which later carried his name, a site of a unique architecture, four giant books, wide open and reaching to the sky. A final homage to culture. Even today, Paris remain full of his monuments. 

The Bibliothèque Nationale François Mitterrand.


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INA (1986a) Déclaration Chirac 20 mars 1986.

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INA (1988) débat présidentiel François Mitterrand / Jacques Chirac

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Published by juliennourian

Founder and President of The Political. Specialised in International Politics and European Studies.

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