In the spring of 2019 I was invited to a book-signing in a Paris bookshop, because I had once ordered a book online from the publishing house Editions Alexandrines, so I was on their mailing list.
The book in question was Le Paris de Mitterrand by Michèle Cotta, the 30th book in their series Le Paris des écrivans (The Paris of the Writers).
François Mitterrand (1916-1996) first came to Paris as a student in 1934, when he was eighteen. For the first several years, he lived in what was then a Catholic students’ residence hall at 104 rue de Vaugirard. This was only a ten-minute walk (800 meters) from the building where he would later live for twenty-five years, from 1947 to 1972, at 4 rue Guynemer, facing the Luxembourg Gardens.
The book gives a brief account of his career, with special attention to the places in Paris that were important to him. As the author points out (page 66), Mitterrand nearly always insisted on living in his own home, rather than in an official residence, even when he was a government minister or when he was President of the Republic.
During his presidency, Mitterrand and his wife Danielle lived at 22 rue de Bièvre in the Latin Quarter. Mitterrand was President for fourteen years, from 1981 to 1995, and in these years the entire street was closed to automobile traffic and had guards posted at both ends. (Fortunately it is not a very long street, just 178 meters.)
Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Danielle Mitterrand lived in rue de Bièvre and her husband turned up there occasionally. The best kept secret of his presidency was that he also had a parallel family with Anne Pingeot, an art historian who was a curator at the department of sculpture at the Musée d’Orsay, and their daughter Mazarine (born in 1974). This secret was not revealed to the public until the last year of Mitterrand’s presidency.
Michèle Cotta, the author of Le Paris de Mitterrand, first interviewed Mitterrand when she was a young free-lance journalist in 1959, at the absolute low point of Mitterrand’s career, when he was widely ridiculed for staging an assassination attempt against himself in the Jardin de l’Observatoire in Paris. She describes this incident on pages 52-56 of her book, but doesn’t mention that her interview was something of a scoop at the time, because it was the first published interview with Mitterrand after the alleged assassination attempt.
In the following decades she became well-known for her in-depth interviews with other French politicians, both in news magazines and on television.
During the presidential election campaign of 1981, she was one of the moderators of two televised debates between the incumbent president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and the Socialist candidate François Mitterrand. Seven years later, during the next presidential elections, she again moderated a televised debate between the incumbent Mitterrand and the opposition candidate Jacques Chirac.
While Michèle Cotta was autographing my copy of her book, I told her that I had once met Mitterrand and interpreted for him on the radio, back in 1967. (See my post Mitterrand and the Panthéon.)
Later I also had a chat with the editor, who noticed that I had bought two other books from the same series, the ones about Marguerite Duras and Victor Hugo. I told her I had already read two other books of theirs, Le Paris de Sartre et Beauvoir by Pascale Fautrier and Le Paris des écrivains by Jean Le Nouvel, and found them both very useful.
It happened that the author of Le Paris de Hugo, Nicole Savy, was also present, so the editor introduced us and I had a lengthy chat with her, mainly about the fire at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, which had happened just three days before.
The book-signing session took place in the bookshop L’Écume des pages (= ‘The foam of the pages’) at 174 Boulevard Saint-Germain, next door to the highly literary Café de Flore and three doors down from the equally literary café Les Deux Magots on the square Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, part of which is now called Place Sartre – Beauvoir.
Both of these cafés are mentioned repeatedly in the autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir, especially in parts of the second volume dealing with the years of the German occupation of Paris during the Second World War.
Not only were these cafés a favorite meeting place for authors and artists, they were also heated, so Beauvoir spent entire days there writing at a table by the stove.
My photos in this post are from 2017 and 2019. I wrote the text in 2019.