French former first lady Mitterrand dies at 87

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Posted: Nov 22, 2011 2:17 PM
French former first lady Mitterrand dies at 87

Well before the Occupy movement took on Wall Street, the former first lady of France, Danielle Mitterrand, was leading the charge against capitalist excess.

"Everybody knows that the foundation of the system today is money: Money is the guru, money decides everything ... That's why we are working to get out of this system," she told RTL radio last month, summing up a lifelong cause in one of her last interviews before her death Tuesday at 87.

Such resistance defined the life of Mitterrand, the widow of France's first Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand.

At age 19, with World War II raging, she went underground in the Burgundy hills with the French Resistance. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her work against the Nazi occupation of France and met her future husband, who had joined up under the code name "Francois Morland."

That union eventually gave her a bully pulpit _ during Francois' 14 years as president _ that she used to advocate for many left-leaning causes. She supported Marxist rebels in El Salvador, ethnic minorities such as Kurds and Tibetans and vociferously opposed capitalist excess.

They also had three sons together, one of whom, Pascal, died at a young age.

Danielle Mitterrand died before dawn after being hospitalized at Georges Pompidou hospital in Paris in recent days for fatigue, her foundation France Libertes said.

As first lady, Mitterrand shucked the tradition of her predecessors who largely kept to the background. In a 1986 interview with The Associated Press, her blue eyes flashed at the suggestion she resembled a high-profile American first lady.

"There is no traditional role" for a first lady, Mitterrand said. "Each woman has her own personality and ... acts according to her conscience and her sensibilities."

Yet in contrast to her outspoken approach to politics, she kept quiet for years about one aspect of her personal life: a secret relationship her husband had had with Anne Pingeot, a museum curator 28 years his junior and the mother of his long-secret daughter, Mazarine Pingeot.

He died of cancer less than a year after leaving office in 1995. In an especially poignant moment in French politics, the widowed Danielle stood before the late president's coffin alongside his mistress and daughter, whose out-of-wedlock birth and existence were long kept from the French public.

Her foundation said Danielle Mitterrand found guidance in a phrase of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: "It's not right to want to heal the suffering of people without committing to fight the very causes of this suffering."

She created several charities and crisscrossed the world in defense of human rights. She once even kissed Cuba's revolutionary Fidel Castro at a residence for visiting dignitaries near the presidential Elysee Palace.

Mitterrand urged worldwide unity to "put an end to economic and financial dictatorship, the henchman of political dictators. Finally, they seem to be shaken by the anger of peoples."

"Of course, the world revolves around the Dow Jones, the Nikkei stock index or the CAC 40 (French stock index). ... But all around the world, little voices are being raised to say that man is unhappy even if the stock market is doing well," Mitterrand told Le Figaro newspaper in 1996.

Thirteen years ago, Mitterrand visited in prison Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther who has spent nearly 30 years on death row over his 1982 conviction for killing a white police officer in Philadelphia.

And in 2008, Mitterrand denounced American support for foes of Bolivia's leftist president Evo Morales, and accused "fascist gangs" of intimidating native peoples in the South American country.

France Libertes, whose focus has been human rights and had recently made a top priority of getting drinking water to those without it around the world, said Mitterrand left behind "a message of hope."

Praise and appreciation for her poured in from across France's political spectrum Tuesday.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said: "Neither the setback or the victory caused her to deviate from the road she had laid for herself: giving a hearing to the voice of those that no one wanted to hear."

Her nephew Frederic Mitterrand, who now serves as culture minister in Sarkozy's conservative government, told BFM TV that his aunt "did a lot to humanize the role of first ladies."

Danielle Emilienne Isabelle Gouze was born Oct. 29, 1924 in Verdun, a town in northeastern France known as one of World War I's biggest killing fields.

Under the Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime during World War II, her father, a Socialist-leaning school principal, lost his job after refusing a state order to list all Jewish students and teachers for authorities, according to Mitterrand's foundation.

In March 1944, she took her own stand and joined the Resistance.

She is survived by sons Gilbert and Jean-Christophe. A burial service is planned Saturday in the eastern town of Cluny, her foundation said.

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Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed this report.