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The second blow to the constitution was delivered by President Mitterrand’s approach to cohabitation. Having lost his parliamentary majority in 1986 Mitterrand used his two-year spell of mitigated power to discredit his prime minister, Jacques Chirac; he re-fashioned the humiliation of the head of government into a springboard for his own re-election. Between 1986 and 1988 Mitterrand and Chirac sat side by side at international conferences, representing France, but without any visible signs of communication. In London, in October 1986, the French president arranged for the French prime minister’s chair to be removed from the conference table. This ruthless behaviour characterised his term of office. In 14 years of his presidency Mitterrand appointed seven prime ministers and humiliated five of them. The only prime minister he treated with open respect, Edouard Balladur, was a political opponent whom Mitterrand wanted to bolster because by doing so he could further undermine Balladur’s rival for the presidency, the hapless Chirac.

Throughout Mitterrand’s years at the Elysée a whiff of sulphur hung over the palace. The president was obsessed with his own privacy. He tried to bury the fact that he had once been a decorated Vichy official, and he was determined to conceal the more recent fact that he was not living with his wife in the conjugal home but was secretly resident in a government apartment with his mistress and their daughter. A special police unit was set up to protect Mitterrand’s privacy. Then, in 1994, the director of this unit shot himself at his desk in the Elysée.

In the previous year Mitterrand’s sixth prime minister, Pierre Bérégovoy, who was involved in a financial scandal, had also committed suicide. It was an unusual case. Bérégovoy left no suicide note, he shot himself with a revolver belonging to his police bodyguard, and according to some reports there were two bullet wounds. During his years in the Elysée, President de Gaulle had lived modestly and insisted on settling his own food bills. The Mitterrand era culminated in an atmosphere of menace and scandal, amid rumours that the president and his circle had been engaged in racketeering.

Mitterrand left office in 1995 without giving any thought to his own succession as Socialist leader. It was a case of après moi, le déluge. A destructive struggle for the leadership of the Socialists broke out, and the eventual beneficiary was François Hollande.

In the 36 years since Mitterrand became head of state, successive presidential campaigns have been dominated by mutual allegations of illegality or corruption. The criminal law has become a routine political weapon; the status of the judiciary has been steadily undermined; and the executive’s control of the supposedly independent prosecutors and judges has gradually increased. A year ago, France’s most senior judge, Bernard Louvel, said that it was past time for politicians to reverse this process and restore judicial independence. Needless to say, nothing has been done. (Significantly, it was three of the “administrative judges” appointed by the Socialist government who steamrollered the case against François Fillon through the usual timetable in order to bring criminal charges against him before the election took place.)

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