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Mitterrand Funeral in the Heart of Paris and in Deep Rural France

January 11, 1996 GMT

PARIS (AP) _ In ceremonies befitting a president who tenaciously held both to power and to his rural roots, Francois Mitterrand was honored today by world leaders at Notre Dame cathedral and by his hometown, where his body will be laid to rest.

Thousands of tearful supporters filled the Place de la Bastille overnight to bid farewell to the man who led France longer than anyone else this century.

More than 250 world leaders and dignitaries came to pay their last respects, including Vice President Al Gore, Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, Prime Minister John Major of Britain, Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat, Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Israel and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.


Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany shed tears as a choir sang and Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger led the funeral Mass for Mitterrand, who died Monday of prostate cancer.

In his eulogy, Lustiger quoted Mitterrand’s recently published thoughts on death, a subject that friends said haunted his last years.

``Death is what gives destiny its richness and meaning,″ Lustiger said, reading Mitterand’s words. ``Men today are too busy living and seem to miss the mystery, and don’t realize that their essential zest for life has dried up.″

Next to the pulpit stood a simple arrangement of red, white and purple flowers. President Jacques Chirac, the longtime conservative rival who succeeded Socialist Mitterrand last May, sat in a red velvet chair.

Hundreds of onlookers watched inside, and a large screen broadcast to crowds outside the 11th-century cathedral on the Seine River.

``He was a great combatant, for social justice in France and everywhere,″ said a grim-faced Pierre Quenaud, who like many other Socialists in the crowd outside wore a red scarf. ``And in life he was courageous in the face of his illness.″

At Mitterrand’s birthplace in Jarnac, a ceremony took place for his family and closest friends at the simple church where he was baptized and his parents were married.

Outside, an estimated 20,000 people converged on the southwestern town of 2,000 residents, where Mitterrand was to be buried in his family tomb. His body was carried to the cemetery in a blue hearse, and the funeral motorcade paused at his birthplace.

Mitterrand’s body, flown from Paris at dawn, arrived in Jarnac, where onlookers lined narrow streets and hung out of windows. Military cadets carried his coffin, draped in the blue, white and red French flag, to the church.

Widow Danielle Mitterrand, in a black overcoat and white scarf blowing in the wind, looked on stoically and a military band played somberly.

She was joined by her sons, Gilbert and Jean-Christophe, and her grandchildren. Mitterrand’s longtime mistress, Anne Pingeot, and their 21-year-old daughter, Mazarine, stood next to them.

Mitterrand’s brother Robert, party faithful, actor Gerard Depardieu and writer Francoise Sagan were also among the 200 attending the service, which was off-limits to the media.

Chirac declared today a national day of mourning for Mitterrand, though he honored the late president’s wish that government offices and schools remain open. Flags flew at half-staff and students across France stood for a moment of silence.

The dual ceremonies exemplified the complexity of the enigmatic Mitterrand.

He governed for 14 years with regal aloofness, and was referred to as the ``Sphinx,″ ``God″ or ``Ton Ton″ (uncle). All the while, he maintained his love for rural France, where he spent his holidays.

Mitterrand was catapulted to power in 1981 by a leftist coalition that later broke up over the president’s shift to more conservative policies two years later, when a flight of capital forced him to abandon a campaign of nationalization and other leftist reforms.

Mitterrand also pursued hard money policies and deregulation that modernized France, the world’s fourth-largest exporter. He joined with Germany’s Kohl in seeking to turn the 15-nation European Union into an economic, and perhaps political and military, superpower.

Mitterrand staged a comeback in 1988, when he was re-elected to another seven-year term after encouraging leftist protests that helped to divide and defeat a conservative coalition led by Chirac.

Although an eloquent advocate of human rights and a veteran of the French Resistance, Mitterrand was criticized for working with pro-Nazi collaborators during World War II, and his government in later years was plagued by scandals.

When he left office last year, unemployment was in the double digits and the Socialists were in disarray.

Still, thousands of people braved the rain this week to deposit red roses _ the Socialist symbol _ outside his office.

An estimated 30,000 people turned out to honor Mitterrand on Wednesday evening at Place de la Bastille. Loudspeakers played solemn works by Bach, Beethoven and Mozart under a light rain.

It was there that 1 million leftists gathered spontaneously in pouring rain on the night of May 10, 1981, to celebrate Mitterrand’s victory over conservative President Valery Giscard d’Estaing.