Son of a Socialist King In his autobiography, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand claims his failings are everyone's fault but his own

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If the late french President François Mitterrand was criticized for the regal manner in which he occupied his office, the behavior of his eldest son also seems characteristic of a royal family -a dysfunctional one. Just nine months after his release from provisional detention for suspected involvement in illegal arms trafficking, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, in a new book, exonerates himself not only of those charges but of also of his life overall. In Mémoire Meurtrie (Battered Memory), Mitterrand fils, 54, casts himself as a victim, first of a tough, cynical family, and then of outsiders hoping to taint the powerful father's reputation through attacks on the sensitive son.

In the autobiography (Plon; 216 pages), Jean-Christophe Mitterrand argues that his father's political ambitions determined his own fate. Despite the leftist leanings of his parents-the socialist Mitterrand had married Danielle Gouze, who founded the human-rights group France Libertés-it's difficult to imagine a familial environment more rigidly bourgeois than the one Jean-Christophe describes. The two Mitterrand boys weren't encouraged to take part in any significant conversations and rarely dined with their parents, who were "not the sort to embrace or touch," as Jean-Christophe puts it. The family often communicated via written notes, and the parents ensured that their offspring never overheard their domestic arguments.

Jean-Christophe found his upbringing stifling and complains that he "never wanted to be the prince of a king but rather a child of a father." Yet by the time he was born, Mitterrand Sr. was already a deputy in the French National Assembly, and his family was often in the spotlight. The social pressures, along with lonely periods in boarding schools, turned Jean-Christophe from a sociable teenager into a hermit. "I wasn't born solitary," he writes, "but, separated from my family, I became that as a consequence of my successive absences." Rather than rebelling against his parents, Jean-Christophe left them. He traveled first to New York, then, at the age of 23, to Israel, where he lived on a kibbutz for six months. Later he worked as a correspondent for Agence France-Presse in Africa. The relative anonymity and bohemian lifestyle appealed to the young Mitterrand. But after his father was elected President in 1981, Jean-Christophe's journalistic career came to an end, he says, since AFP presumably wanted to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.

If his father's election closed one door, it opened others. Despite his meager qualifications-he finished only a few years of university and had worked as a journalist for about nine years-Jean-Christophe in 1986 was named chief presidential adviser on African affairs. He soon gained a reputation for currying favor with African leaders on behalf of the Elysée Palace, delivering messages dictated by the President-and earning the nickname Papa-m'a-dit (Daddy told me). His undistinguished diplomatic career, constantly shadowed by rumors and press criticism, ended in 1992 when he left the Elysée to work as a consultant at the Compagnie Générale des Eaux, the French water monopoly. That job lasted until the day his father, the longest-serving President of the Republic, was buried.

Last Christmas, as a result of an inquiry into illegal arms trading to Angola, Jean-Christophe was jailed for three weeks. After being placed under investigation for influence peddling, he was freed on $700,000 bail-a sum paid by his mother, with whom he has lived since his release. In his book Mitterrand denies the charges, which were dismissed on a technicality, claiming that the $1.8 million that ended up in his Swiss bank account came from consulting, not illegal arms trading. And again he says he is a victim-this time of judges, the French press and former Socialist Party allies looking to settle scores.

That defense ignores the "everyone is doing it" environment of the Mitterrand years. But France's power establishment-and public-has never been kind to the Mitterrand boy. In the preface to the book, journalist Pierre Péan backs Jean-Christophe's claim that he serves as a handy target for the accumulated hatred and frustration generated by his father. Péan admits to having been among those who "adopted, without verifying, the numerous rumors about him."

As for the battered soul himself, he claims to be responsible for one crime only, the original sin determining his miserable fate: that of being his father's son. Six weeks after the book's September publication, however, a new investigation was opened into Jean-Christophe's business dealings in Africa. Perhaps the judge hasn't read this book.