A young journalist shadowed French President François Mitterrand during his final thousand days. In a book published a year after the subject’s passing, Le Dernier Mitterrand, Georges-Marc Benamou describes the final acts of greatness and weakness of a man who understood his time may be limited to one week, one month, or one year. The author’s intimate description provokes much reflection.
Benamou, a writer, journalist and scriptwriter, divided the book into four acts that were bookended by two scenes: the first, Mitterrand’s final gathering with intimates, and the second, his final farewells the following day. In between, the book recounts a man in power, constantly shadowed by his personal doctor, tidying his memories into their rightful places somewhere in the recesses of his mind whilst playing the sort of political game that defined his long career: opposing, dividing, seducing, manipulating. The contrast compels.
Mitterrand was a polarising and contested figure. Yet despite the considerable controversies of his career, there appeared little trace of regret. “Write, write everything down,” he instructed his biographer. “And tell them that I am not the devil.” Mitterrand saw himself as France’s last great leader. He wished to set the record straight; to ensure that his final thoughts and words would be properly reflected and echo through time. Great leaders are not generally known for their humility.
But this absence of regret also recalls a Buddhist perspective, that life should be considered a preparation for death. According to this outlook, one’s final acts are devoid of regret when the preceding years have been full of kindness, joy and productive activity. This is surely only possible when regular and concerted efforts are made to avoid common distractions such as ambition, pride and self-centredness. It could not be said that this was Mitterrand’s case.
Mitterrand’s final acts oscillated between fervent political activity and quiet reflection. Benamou notes that the confidence and surety of his Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, who publicly cast himself as Mitterrand’s natural successor in waiting, renewed the incumbent’s lust for life. The President discovered anew his combative and argumentative nature. But eventually, as prostate cancer gradually, inexorably won more ground, he tended towards quiet contemplation of his life.
The great Persian poet Rumi once lyricised that “quietness was the surest sign that you’ve died”, though death in this context was more metaphysical than literal. Mitterrand led an existence defined by intense focus on political outcomes he wished to achieve, but his final act allowed quietness to gradually envelop. His ruminations in the presence of Benamou put him at ease with the contested moments of his life, and with the decisions he had taken. On other occasions Benamou, the trained journalist, contested the memory of the ailing politician. These occasions were often unwelcome.
Why wait for the final act to take Rumi’s advice and “slide out the side… and be quiet”? It is important, even necessary, to take time on occasion to consider, ruminate or reflect on decisions or courses of action. To leave such contemplations to the end is to risk standing behind a descending curtain, ill-at-ease, with regret or remorse. It is not easy to create the necessary time and awareness. Even the simple gestures of embracing loved ones or expressing friendship are too often disregarded for some future moment.
Would Mitterrand have achieved what he had, and reached the extent of his significant ambition, had he stopped to reflect on the merit and goodness of each action over the long course of his political career? Ultimately, he had the gift that many would wish: of
remaining productive to the end, with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and conviction that, on most occasions, he did what was just. The thick cloud of furious activity, soaring ambition and constant movement made Mitterrand’s final acts of contemplation more compelling.
But not everyone gets advance notice of their final hour. There is merit in having the presence to occasionally “slide out the side and be quiet” — to think about the justness of your actions and make time for those around you. The final act will come soon enough.