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Repeating 1981′s Historic Rally, French Mass at Bastille For Mitterrand

January 11, 1996

PARIS (AP) _ Nearly 15 years after a million ecstatic leftists swarmed to the Place de la Bastille to celebrate Francois Mitterrand’s election, supporters gathered there again Wednesday night for a final, somber farewell.

Tens of thousands of mourners, many bearing roses _ the symbol of Mitterrand’s Socialist Party _ crowded together in silence under a light rain at the Place de la Bastille. Many wept.

``I came to pay a final homage to my president. I have the impression that part of France is dying with him,″ said Raoul Schiller, 35, his chin trembling with emotion.

The memorial for Mitterrand, who died Monday at age 79, was organized by the Socialists; the state funeral is to be held Thursday.

The plaza was filled with Gregorian chants and other grave music. Overhead was a huge black-and-white portrait of a waving, smiling Mitterrand.

Many French now in their 30s were first-time voters when Mitterrand was elected.

``I’m really very sad. Everyone knew he soon would die, but it’s now that I realize this is the end of an era,″ said Annick Bernard, 36, who was at the Bastille in 1981.

For younger people who grew up during his reign _ the longest for a French president this century _ the man affectionately called ``Uncle″ was the only president they had known, until he retired in May.

A young girl wept as her mother stroked her cheek. People young and old stopped by after work, roses in hand, and stood silently with an air of nostalgia and sadness, listening to the music.

The crowd slowly pouring through the nearby subway station was so dense that employees threw open the gates, letting riders in and out for free.

Police didn’t immediately estimate the turnout, but the plaza was packed with people as it was the night of May 10, 1981, when 1 million came to celebrate Mitterrand’s upset election victory.

The 1981 election of the Socialists, thanks in part to the backing of France’s then-powerful Communists, wasn’t simply a change of guard. It was hailed by the left _ and reviled by the right _ as a Socialist Revolution, the first time in a generation that the left had power.

Mitterrand won by a narrow margin _ 52 percent _ but young people voted for him en masse.

On their way to the impromptu celebration at the Bastille that rainy night, youths swarmed into the yellow first-class subway trains. As wealthy elderly women sat in horror, grasping their handbags, youths hanging out the windows pounded in unison on the sides of the cars, chanting ``To the Bastille! First class is finished!″

At the Bastille, the crowd was wild. Red flags were everywhere, and people perched in trees and atop bus shelters to hear the victory tirades of leftist leaders. Communists and others sang the International, socialism’s anthem.

The site for the rally had historical significance: The taking of the Bastille by Parisians marked the radicalization of the 1789 French Revolution.

But Mitterrand’s revolution was short-lived. A flight of capital forced him within two years to back away from his most radical measures such as the nationalization of banks and key industries. When it became apparent he was shelving his most ambitious reforms, his four Communist Cabinet ministers quit.

The end of the Cold War rendered obsolete the traditional cleavage between left and right. The Socialist Party grew into a party like the others _ pragmatic and fraught by corruption scandals.

Mitterrand, dying from prostate cancer, didn’t run for a third term last year, and conservative Jacques Chirac became president in May.

Barbara Hendricks, the American opera singer and Francophile, closed the three-hour vigil with a performance on the steps of the modern, glassy Bastille Opera building, one of Mitterrand’s many massive architectural legacies.

Wearing a red scarf and accompanied only by an accordion, she sang in French, ``The Time of the Cherries,″ written by 19th-century composer Jean-Baptiste Clement.

``Francois Mitterrand represented something in the history of France, the history of Europe,″ she said on French radio earlier Wednesday. ``We feel a bit orphaned, and a bit scared, because history is ours to make now.″

Mitterrand was to be buried Thursday at his hometown of Jarnac in southwest France.

Dozens of foreign leaders, including Vice President Al Gore, Cuban President Fidel Castro, PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, were to attend a Mass for him Thursday at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral.

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