By Rudi Chelminski
March 13, 1978 12:00 PM

The fate of the Fifth Republic hangs in the balance as 35 million Frenchmen prepare to cast their ballots Sunday in the first round of what many observers perceive as the beginning of a reckless electoral gamble. At stake is control of the National Assembly and the future of the most maddeningly unpredictable nation in Europe. If the leftist parties win, as expected, and if they suppress their fratricidal instincts, the next prime minister of France will almost certainly be François Mitterrand, first secretary of the Socialist party. Mitterrand promises sweeping changes that could isolate France, shake the Western alliance and alter the course of European history. Washington is crossing its fingers.

For François Maurice Adrien Marie Mitterrand, 61, the two-part election provides yet another shot at the kind of power that has eluded him for 32 years—most recently in 1974, when he lost a presidential election to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing by barely a single percentage point. For the French voters, it is one more encounter with the proud, private man who has become as familiar as he remains enigmatic. From 1946 to 1958, during the chaos of the French Fourth Republic, Mitterrand was in and out of the cabinet no fewer than 11 times. He became the implacable foe of President Charles de Gaulle and his successors. Yet despite his public career, Mitterrand is a painfully shy man whose consuming interest is not politicking, but books (he has written 10 of them himself).

One centrist politician has called Mitterrand “the prince of equivocation,” and there is ample testimony to his lifelong ambivalence. Though he once served as a minor official in the pro-Nazi wartime Vichy government, it was only a cover, he says today, for heroic service with the the French Resistance. He learned early to be wary of the Communists—”They did me the favor of teaching me to keep my eyes open if I wanted to avoid being crushed by their machine.” Yet it was he who engineered a Socialist coalition with them in 1972 that fell apart only last fall. As Minister for Overseas Territories in 1950, he advocated the dismemberment of the French empire, but as Minister of the Interior only four years later, he ruthlessly suppressed the Algerian nationalists.

Mitterrand, one of eight children of a railroad stationmaster in the town of Jarnac, grew up in a frugal, devoutly Catholic household. At 17, he went off to study law and political science at the Sorbonne. Gradually drifting leftward politically, he enlisted in the infantry at the outbreak of World War II and was wounded in the chest at Verdun. Taken prisoner, Sergeant Mitterrand plotted escape with the same dogged perseverance that has characterized his political quest. He made it on the third try.

In romance, he was surprisingly resolute. In 1944, in the apartment of a comrade in the Resistance, Mitterrand noticed a photograph of the man’s pretty sister. “I like her,” he announced. “I’m going to marry her.” Eight months later he did. Today Danielle Mitterrand, 53, is an unobtrusive observer of her husband’s career. “I do everything I can,” she says, “to make his life easier.” Their two sons, Christophe, 31, a journalist, and Gilbert, 29, a teacher of law, have left home, and Mme. Mitterrand spends her days at the family’s Left Bank townhouse in Paris, caring for the dogs and cats, knitting, binding books and making François’ favorite blackberry jelly.

To perennial also-rans like Mitterrand, politics is sometimes perceived as the art of the impossible. But only in 1974, after his defeat by Giscard, did the tireless campaigner sound a note of discouragement. “It looks as if history doesn’t like me,” he observed dolefully. This week he may seduce her at last.

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