François Mitterrand’s Letters To Anne Pingeot

We never know what the past has in store for us. Françoise Sagan’s expression has never seemed so apt as when applied to her friend François Mitterrand. We knew the “complex” and “romantic” aspects of the former president. But no one imagined that his romantic proclivities could have pushed him so far into the art of the double life.

On the one hand we have the cynical deceiver, the seasoned seducer, flitting from flower to flower; on the other, the sentimental poet, in love with great love, faithful and sincere to the point of despair in the manner of Stendhal. Extending between the two are so few bridges that one gets the impression of two different subjects inhabiting the same body, sharing the same brain, and producing two different results. The skills developed on the first stage are the arts of maneuver and manipulation of which the socialist leader was a past master, but these seem of little use in dealing with the dramas of pain and loneliness unfolding on the second stage (where François Mitterrand played the anti-Laclos, the amorous general who seduced women as one would lay siege to a city—and using virtually the same protocols).

In the 1,200 pages of letters that are the chronicle of that second life (Lettres à Anne, Gallimard) there is hardly a trace of the contemporaneous events that punctuated the first: nothing from 1965, when he first stood for president, and just a few pages in 1981, when finally he became president; nothing at all about 1968. It is as if François Mitterrand lived by two different calendars—one for marking out public history; the other underground, invisible to others, a secret calendar on which the great dates are a sunset in Aquitaine or a night spent with his beloved.

A supplement to Proust’s unfinished Contre Sainte-Beuve.

An extension of the Proustian law according to which there coexist in every writer two selves, a social self and a deep self, that have only the writer’s name in common. Mitterrand practiced partitioning not only in the realm of family and friendships but also within himself—between his selves—in the manner of Borges’s two theologians who realize only at the end of the tale that they were the same person.

The other surprise from the collection is that the affair remained secret for so long. There are precedents, of course. One thinks of the aged Paul Valéry whom everyone considered the impersonation of his Monsieur Teste, immobilized by intelligence and coldness, but who was in fact consumed by wild love for Jeanne Voilier. One thinks of Zola who waged, up to the end, in torment and in joy, a strange war of love involving his wife, Alexandrine, and her maid, the violence of which did not come out until much later. And perhaps of Hugo and Juliette Drouet or, even more so, Léonie d’Aunet. One thinks above all of Léon Gambetta and Léonie Léon, another self-sacrificing woman who, for ten years straight, lived in the shadow of a man she loved madly, unbeknownst to those around them, in an affair that, like Mitterrand’s, left us a thousand letters.

But Mitterrand was not Gambetta. For one thing, his letters to Anne Pingeot are of a literary quality even greater than those of the tribune of 1871. But, more pointedly, Mitterrand was the most carefully scrutinized and closely watched public figure in the history of the French Republic, a contemporary of the arrival of an age of systematic indiscretion in which all of us, especially those in positions of power, have been denied the right to a penumbra of privacy. Yet that did not stop this story from remaining the best-kept national secret of the era for as long as he and the recipient of the letters (as well as Mitterrand’s two sons) wished it to remain so—that is, until 1994 and the publication of the photos of their daughter Mazarine in Paris Match. That, too, required a great deal of art: the art of concealment. The art and science, put by Mitterrand to multiple uses, of the purloined letter, which consisted of leaving as many clues as necessary to ensure that the evidence would disappear when exposed to light. But also the art of happiness, the rules and practices of which he discovered, once again, through his true master, Stendhal.

But the most charming aspect of the story lies in its contradiction of the widely held idea that love dies when it is deprived of the oxygen of a shared life lived openly. François Mitterrand turns out to have been a great admirer of a writer who championed that very idea. But did Mitterrand realize, when he told Bernard Pivot in 1977 that he considered Albert Cohen “one of this century’s greatest,” on a par with Proust, that the personal adventure in which he was engaged repudiated Cohen’s pessimism in every respect? Was he aware, when listening to my arguments for awarding the recluse of Geneva a Nobel Prize—arguments advanced in the course of more than one long lunch at the president’s apartment on the rue de Bièvre in Paris—that his own silence, and the double game of a life and work equally concealed, were eloquent counter-arguments for a passion that burned all the more intensely for the void that surrounded it?

That is another mystery.

But here is a book that demonstrates how a great love can thrive not despite the encroaching desert but because of it, because the participants can count only on the strength of the delight they find in each other. Here are two lovers who, in contrast to Cohen’s Ariane and Solal, were able to hold the same note as the air around them thinned. And here is the incredible story of a disguised love that for thirty-two years was lived behind closed doors, the lovers holding their breath, a love lived without any of the resources of triangularity and its mimetic dressage, one in which desire nevertheless seems always to have prevailed.

Theirs is a deeply moving story that defies all known laws of emotional gravity and attraction.

In disclosing with equal modesty and elegance the part of her life that she shared with François Mitterrand, Anne Pingeot has not only added touches to the portrait of the president she loved, she also has stimulated the growth of a new branch of the long and beautiful literature of love.

Translated from french by Steven B. Kennedy