Francois Mitterand

October 26

François Mitterand (1916)

It was on this date, October 26, 1916, that French President François Mitterand was born in Jarnac, Charente. Born into a conservative, a Roman Catholic family, Mitterrand first entered politics by way of the ultranationalist Croix de Feu organization, choosing it over the Vatican-opposed Action Française. Mitterand served as a junior minister in the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government, but later worked with the Resistance.

After the war, Mitterand continued his pursuit of political office. He held various offices in the Fourth Republic. In the Fifth Republic he ran against Charles de Gaulle in the 1965 Presidential elections, but was defeated. He joined the French Socialist Party and became its leader by 1971.

In 1974 he opposed Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and was again defeated. But in 1981 Mitterand was elected French president. He was re-elected in 1988 and held the office until 1995. Six months after he left office, on 8 January 1996, François Mitterrand died in Paris of the terminal cancer he had hidden from the public for years.

It was also in 1996 that Franz-Olivier Giesbert observed, in his book of conversations with the intellectually adept politician, Dying Without God: François Mitterand's Meditations on Living and Dying, that Mitterand had become a confirmed agnostic, unable to sustain his earlier Catholic faith, or a belief in immortality. Mitterand faced his death without fear and without faith.

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Georges Danton (1759)

It was also on this date, October 26, 1759, that French revolutionist Georges Danton was born in Arcis-sur-Aube. Though not from a wealthy family, he got a good education and became a lawyer before deciding the legal structure of France was inimical to freedom. He abandoned the law for revolutionary activities and, when the monarchy fell, became minister of justice.

A powerful, vibrant speaker, Danton could incite crowds. Against the Duke of Brunswick and the Prussian invaders he railed, "il nous faut de l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace" — "we must dare, and again dare, and forever dare." He was variously called "Jove the Thunderer", the "rebel Satan", a "Titan" and "Sardanapalus" by friends and enemies.

During the Revolution, when he believed France was gravely threatened, Danton approved of violent measures, but the excesses sobered him. He opposed the use of the guillotine, but his moderation fell out of fashion and the extremists rallied to Robespierre. He was arrested, but before the revolutionary tribunal Danton displayed such rhetorical vehemence that to keep him from winning the crowd's favour, his enemies passed a resolution condemning Danton for failing to show respect for the tribunal.

Popular writers admit Danton's good character, but often pass over his outspoken Atheism. It was Robespierre who had him arrested and executed, on 5 April 1794: one of the charges Robespierre used against Danton was his Atheism. "I leave it all in a frightful welter," Georges Danton said on his way to the guillotine, "not a man of them has an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is dragged down by me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than meddle with the government of men!" His prediction about Robespierre was correct.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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