Imagine that the President had a long-term romance with a woman not his wife, had a child with her, and that the press knew all about it but said nothing. Not likely in the U.S., perhaps, but it could—and did—happen in France. Not only that, but in January 1996 the French public was moved, at the funeral of President François Mitterrand, to see his mistress Anne Pingeot and her daughter Mazarine united with Mitterrand's widow, Danielle. "François loved Mazarine enormously," said Danielle, in a 1996 interview, explaining why she invited her husband's illegitimate child to the funeral. "They're as much alike as two drops of water."

Now, 2½ years later, Mazarine, 23, is back in public view with a first novel, coyly titled First Novel—an instant bestseller that has propelled her story onto the cover of French magazines and into prime-time coverage on French TV. The young woman whose very existence was for so long not spoken of is now an object of national fascination—and for good reason. First Novel is a love story about young Left Bank intellectuals Agathe and Victor, but the most engaging relationship in the book is between the heroine and her father, a literary man—like Mitterrand himself—who did not marry Agathe's mother and who "loved [his daughter] in her lightness, her excess, her outrageous beauty."

First Novel is dedicated "To My Father." But Pingeot, clearly ambivalent about her newfound celebrity, insists it is not autobiographical. "I am what I write," she told the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. "No one has a right to reduce me to 'Mazarine, daughter of...' "

Pingeot was born in Avignon in December 1974. Her mother, Anne, a museum curator, now 55, was the daughter of an old friend of Mitterrand's. It was not, however, until January 1984, when Mazarine was 9, that Mitterrand reportedly signed papers recognizing her officially as his child. It was about this time, at a political breakfast, according to the French daily Le Monde, that a TV journalist asked the President about certain rumors. "Yes, I have an illegitimate daughter," Mitterrand said with a shrug. "So what?" The press agreed. "If adultery interfered with a political career in France," explains political journalist Eric Mandonnet, "I don't know that we'd have anyone in office at all."

Pursuing a course that would be unimaginable in the U.S., Mitterrand installed his mistress and daughter in a government-owned apartment. Despite his high profile, Mitterrand would take Mazarine out to the local patisserie, strolling the streets of the Latin Quarter holding his little girl's hand. His interest in her deepened as she got older, and they reportedly communicated every day.

Finally, in 1994, toward the end of his second seven-year term as President, the ailing Mitterrand—who had two grown sons with Danielle—decided to introduce his daughter to the world and appeared in a photo with 20-year-old Mazarine in Paris Match. Far from being outraged by Mitterrand's assault on family values, the nation applauded his courage. "Where some saw amorality," says former cabinet official Jean Glavany, "we saw a wonderful love story of a father for his daughter, to whom he gave time—lots of time—attention and affection."

These days, Mazarine can be spotted hanging out in cafes near the Luxembourg Gardens, reading or chatting with her boyfriend Ali Badou, 26, the son of a Moroccan diplomat. She still lives in her mother's Left Bank apartment, only now she must often elude paparazzi, who, she told TV interviewer Michel Field, make her feel "dirty." Withal, she plans to write many more novels. "It's time," she told Field, "for me to express myself."

William Plummer
Cathy Nolan in Paris

  • Contributors:
  • Cathy Nolan.