His Secret Family

updated 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE PLOT, WHICH UNFOLDED LAST July, was like something out of French cinema—part melodrama, part farce: France's Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, then 77, lay in a Paris hospital, still weak from his second operation for terminal prostate cancer. Enter Jean-Christophe, 49, and Gilbert, 47, his sons by First Lady Danielle Mitterrand. Exit les boys. Enter, from an adjoining room, France's top-secret "second" family—Anne Pingeot, the president's longtime mistress, and their daughter, Mazarine, born out of wedlock 20 years ago. Fade. A few days later, Mitterrand, now discharged, goes straight to Broussais hospital and Danielle, his loyal wife of almost half a century, who is recuperating from open-heart surgery. Fini.

Well, not quite. Just over a week ago the French magazine Paris Match sent all Gaul into a tizzy by running on its cover a zoom-lens paparazzi photo of Mitterrand and Mazarine, his hand on her shoulder, as they departed Le Divellec, a chic Parisian eatery—and announcing publicly, for the first time, that the dark-haired literature student is the president's illegitimate child. "The moving story of a double life," heralded the journal. None of this, of course, came as a surprise to French political insiders and journalists, who had long known that Mitterrand (a "dedicated womanizer" in the recent words of London's Sunday Times) supports an extracurricular ménage.

Nonetheless, Pingeot and Mazarine, who has her mother's surname and her father's high cheekbones and piercing gaze, remain shadowy figures. Born to a prominent family in Auvergne, in central France, Pingeot, in her 50s, is an art historian specializing in 19th-century works who serves as a curator at the Musée D'Orsay in Paris. She met Mitterrand in 1973, at a seaside resort called Hossegor in southwest France. Named after the library at the French Academy, Mazarine was recently admitted to the literature program at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, one of France's most prestigious universities. Her adolescence was not entirely without care—reportedly she came through a struggle with anorexia. Almost as if to prepare the French people for the recent news, Mitterrand allowed Mazarine to attend a state dinner last month for the emperor of Japan.

Indeed, as his life apparently ebbs away, Mitterrand has turned remarkably forthright. He has given a number of frank interviews about his failing health, in the face of speculation that he is not likely to survive his-second seven-year term, which ends in 1995. The president also has provided source material for A French Youth, a book by historian Pierre Péan that explores Mitterrand's involvement with the collaborationist Vichy government during World War II. "He had this idea of getting everything into the open," says Péan, "to prepare his entry into history." The day Paris Match hit the stands with his love child on the cover, Mitterrand showed "no trace of irritation," according to the Journal du Dimanche.

To many, though, the. Match piece was an outrage, less as an affront to security or to France's famously sophisticated sexual mores than to the nation's strict privacy laws, which assiduously protect its citizens. "It was the honor of the French press that the lives of politicians were kept out of the media," declared former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. The revelations raised hackles in other quarters as well, for it turns out that since his election in 1981, Mitterrand has on occasion housed his extended family in luxurious, government-owned digs—an annex of the Elysée Palace, the presidential residence and a chateau outside of Paris, where they spent weekends. "This second family has lived in the republic's palaces, maintained with taxpayers' money," political commentator Philippe Alexandre complained to Paris Match.

Although Mitterrand has lightened his workload and added naps to his daily routine, he is far from being an invalid. A month ago he was seen with Danielle and their sons, eating seafood at a restaurant near the Champs Élysées. On Oct. 27 he was in the town of Blois, about 100 miles southwest of Paris, inaugurating a bridge and mingling with admirers. And just last week, Mitterrand opened the Franco-African summit in Biarritz. He has even shown up on the golf course. "Believe me," Danielle Mitterrand, 70, is reported to have said, "he still wants to have fun, take full advantage of every instant of his life."

Mme. Mitterrand has never spoken of her husband's alleged tomcatting; indeed, the two have led more or less separate lives for many years, and occasionally a rumor surfaces that the first lady herself turns to friends for support. Still, the Mitterrands remain close. "There seems to be a deep bond between them," observed British journalist Valerie Grove in 1991. Up to now, at least, the couple's sons have steadfastly ignored talk of their half sister. At one point, as Alexandre writes, Mitterrand's son Jean-Christophe actually passed Mazarine in the corridor of Cochin hospital without acknowledging her. "As long as my father has not told me about this young girl," he told the author, "she doesn't exist." She does now: it has been reported that Mitterrand is amending his will so that Mazarine will receive the same share as her half brothers.

Will le scandale Mitterrand render France's future first—and second—families as vulnerable to scrutiny as, say, the Kennedys and the Windsors? Not very likely, according to Roger Therond, managing editor of Paris Match. "French politicians can sleep in peace," he says. "And with whomever they please."

RICHARD JEROME
CATHY NOLAN in Paris

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