French former first lady Mitterrand dies at 87

November 22, 2011 - 5:40 AM
France Obit Mitterrand

FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2001, file photo, former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand poses with Kurdish refugees as she visits a makeshift housing camp in Frejus, southern France. Danielle Mitterrand, a member of the French Resistance and outspoken advocate for human rights who broke the mold as first lady alongside France's first Socialist president, has died it is announced Tuesday Nov. 22, 2011. Mitterrand, who was 87, died overnight Monday to Tuesday Nov.22 2011, after being hospitalized at Georges Pompidou hospital in Paris for fatigue. (AP Photo/Lionnel Cironneau, file)

PARIS (AP) — Danielle Mitterrand, a decorated member of the French Resistance and combative advocate for the poor who broke the mold as first lady alongside France's first Socialist president, died Tuesday at age 87.

Mitterrand died before dawn after being hospitalized at Georges Pompidou hospital in Paris in recent days for fatigue, her foundation France Libertes said.

Mitterrand turned the 14-year tenure of her husband, French President Francois Mitterrand, into her own bully pulpit — one that long outlasted him. He died of cancer shortly after leaving office in 1995.

A determined activist, Mitterrand advocated many left-leaning causes, supporting Marxist rebels in El Salvador, ethnic minorities like Kurds and Tibetans, and vociferously opposing capitalist excess.

Mitterrand created several charities and criss-crossed the world in defense of human rights. She reportedly once kissed Cuba's Fidel Castro on the steps of the presidential Elysee Palace.

Her foundation said Mitterrand found guidance in a phrase of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: "It's not right to want to heal the suffering of people without committing to fight the very causes of this suffering."

France Libertes, whose focus has been human rights and had recently made a top priority of getting drinking water to those without it around the world, said Mitterrand left behind "a message of hope."

Mitterrand called for worldwide unity among "new Resisters" to "put an end to economic and financial dictatorship, the henchman of political dictators. Finally, they seem to be shaken by the anger of peoples."

Well before the Occupy movement, Mitterrand told Le Figaro newspaper in 1996: "Of course, the world revolves around the Dow Jones, the Nikkei stock index or the CAC 40. ...But all around the world, little voices are being raised to say that man is unhappy even if the stock market is doing well."

Praise and appreciation for her poured in from across France's political spectrum Tuesday.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said: "Neither the setback or the victory caused her to deviate from the road she had laid for herself: giving a hearing to the voice of those that no one wanted to hear."

Ever outspoken, in 2008 Mitterrand denounced American support for foes of Bolivia's leftist president Evo Morales, and accused "fascist gangs" of intimidating native peoples in the South American country.

Thirteen years ago, Mitterrand visited in prison Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther who has spent nearly 30 years on death row over his 1982 conviction for killing a white police officer in Philadelphia.

She was no novice at defending her convictions. As a young woman, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her work in the Resistance during the Nazi occupation in World War II.

Mitterrand shucked the tradition of French first ladies to stay in the background. In a 1986 interview with The Associated Press, her blue eyes flashed at the suggestion she resembled a high-profile American first lady.

"There is no traditional role" for a first lady, Mitterrand said. "Each woman has her own personality and ... acts according to her conscience and her sensibilities."

Her nephew Frederic Mitterrand, who now serves as culture minister in Sarkozy's conservative government, told BFM TV that his aunt "did a lot to humanize the role of first ladies."

She is survived by two sons, Gilbert and Jean-Christophe. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.

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Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed this report.