Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Danielle Mitterand

It might be inviting to react to the death of former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand on Nov. 22 at age 87 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. She founded her human rights group France-Libertés in 1986, midway through her husband's first term, and defended the rights of Kurds and Tibetans as well as more controversial causes: Madame Mitterand sided with the Marxist rebels in El Salvador and befriended Mexico's Subcomandante Marcos, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Her death drew tributes from French conservatives and leftists alike — including those who ferociously oppose the emphatically leftist causes she championed. "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 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."

She handled personal crises with similar conviction, resolutely standing by of one of her sons during his trial 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.

A version of this text originally appeared on on Nov. 22, 2011.