A ceremony at Mitterrand's childhood home in the western town of Jarnac climaxed days of official remembrance - and served as a forum for Socialists hoping to return to power in presidential elections in 16 months.

 

Four former prime ministers who served under Mitterrand were among those who paid homage to the man referred to while in office, from 1981 to 1995, as "the sphinx" or "Tonton," an affectionate nickname for uncle.

 

Representatives of the governing right, including Jean-Pierre Raffarin, former prime minister, also were present.

 

Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party leader, rejected the notion that today's party lacked a charismatic leader like Mitterrand who unified the left and, at his high point, was a larger-than-life figure with an enigmatic aura that has yet to die.

 

Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister, and some others donned the hat, scarf and dark coat that were Mitterrand's trademark.

 

"There is no need for nostalgia," Hollande said, telling his troops to "prolong" the action of Mitterrand who was replaced by Jacques Chirac, the conservative president now in his second term. "It is always a combat."

 

Childhood home

 

Mitterrand's childhood home was officially inaugurated as a museum at the ceremony that began at the cemetery where he is buried.

 

It was the last in a series of commemorations that included the inauguration on Friday of a Paris walking itinerary that recalls both Mitterrand's passion for discreet walks around the capital and the building projects, like the Bastille Opera, by which he left his mark.

 

Mitterrand died at the age of 79 - seven months after leaving the presidency - from prostate cancer that he had suffered from since 1981 but only revealed to the country in 1992.

 

Mitterrand greeting Tunisian
leader Habib Borguiba (1956)

Mitterrand admitted belatedly to another big secret, the existence of a daughter out of wedlock. Mazarine Pingeot and one of two sons, Gilbert, were present at Sunday's ceremony. His widow, Danielle, was absent.

 

Mitterrand began his presidency in 1981 by abolishing the death penalty.

 

He moved to decentralise the French state, an effort still under way, and, a fervent believer in the European Union, joined with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to give real impetus to EU construction.

"France is our country and Europe is our future," he said in December 1986.

 

However, scandals haunted the tenure of the secretive Socialist president, and questions remain, including his ties to the collaborationist Vichy regime, which he briefly worked for after escaping from a German prison. He later joined the French Resistance. 

 

But the nature of Mitterand's longtime relationship with Rene Bousquet, head of the Vichy police, also leaves questions. Bousquet was killed in his Paris apartment by a crazed assailant on the eve of his war crimes trial.

 

Object of veneration

 

Such dark questions have apparently not harmed his legacy. 

 

The French media have devoted front pages and special TV shows to Mitterrand, with the leftist daily Liberation assuring with others that he has gained cult status and is today the object of veneration.

 

Chirac, now in his second term as
president, succeeded Mitterrand

One poll published last week suggested as much. The survey by the CSA firm showed that three French in 10 - 35% - considered Mitterrand the best president in recent times - ahead of Charles de Gaulle, who got support from 30% of the 952 people questioned.

No margin of error was given but it would be plus or minus three percentage points in such a poll.

 

However, detractors also raised their voices. The conservative daily Le Figaro castigated the Mitterrand era for leaving France with what it said were economic and social debts.

 

"It is not enough, to be a great man, to be a good figure for a novel," the paper commented in its weekend edition.

 

Mitterrand, who regularly consulted a fortune teller, all but predicted the current outpouring.

 

"I believe in the forces of the spirit and I will not leave you," he said during his last New Year's wishes to the French, on 31 December 1994.