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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

World Bids Mitterrand Adieu

PARIS -- In ceremonies befitting a president who tenaciously held to power and his rural roots, Fran?ois Mitterrand was honored Thursday by world leaders at Notre Dame cathedral and laid to rest in his hometown.


The funeral Mass at Notre Dame cathedral followed a night of nostalgia and tears among tens of thousands of followers who massed for a vigil at Place de la Bastille to silently honor Mitterrand. He died Monday of prostate cancer at 79.


In accordance with his wishes, a simultaneous ceremony limited to relatives and friends was held in his hometown, Jarnac, a small town in the region renowned for its cognac in southwest France. Mitterrand's body, flown from Paris at dawn, was placed in his family's tomb.


"France prays for President Fran?ois Mitterrand, united in peace with this church," Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger said in a moving eulogy. "God in all your goodness, have pity on Fran?ois Mitterrand who has just died."


Earlier, world leaders slowly filed into the packed cathedral, humbly taking their places in small wooden and wicker chairs facing Lustiger's pulpit. African presidents and Saudi princes arrived in bright, flowing robes, accompanied by wives and uniformed generals.


Among the 250 leaders and dignitaries at Notre Dame, King Carl XVI and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were among those seated in the front row. U.S. Vice President Al Gore was seated in the second row behind the president of Togo.


Also near the front were Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez.


In his eulogy, Lustiger quoted Mitterrand's recently published thoughts on death.


"Why do we live in such times of spiritual drought, in which men, too busy living, seem to miss the essential mystery" of life? Lustige said, citing Mitterrand's writiings.


During the Mass, priests gave communion to some of the hundreds of people assembled outside the cathedral. Inside, President Jacques Chirac, his wife and several heads of state from Europe and Africa received communion as well.


"It was very, very moving," Gonzalez, also a Socialist, said after the Mass as he left the cathedral. "I am very proud to have been his friend."


Chirac, a longtime conservative rival who succeeded Mitterrand last May, sat in a gold and red velvet chair. His wife, Bernadette, sat next to him.


Chirac, who on Monday delivered a stirring speech on national television in honor of his old rival, declared Thursday a national day of mourning for Mitterrand. Flags flew at half-mast, students across France stood for a minute of silence and Paris subways stopped for a minute at 11 a.m.


During the 90-minute Mass, Barbara Hendricks, the American opera singer and Francophile, sang a requiem, "Pious Jesus." She had also sung at the Bastille vigil the previous night.


On the plaza outside, hundreds watched a large screen broadcasting the Mass from the 11th century cathedral on a Seine River island.


"The whole world sent its leaders to salute Fran?ois Mitterrand," Loic Ducos, a 19-year-old philosophy student, said as he watched the screen before Mass began. "I'm really very happy and honored to be here. I'll remember this for the rest of my life."


After the Mass, Chirac invited the foreign leaders to the presidential Elysee Palace for lunch.


The dual ceremonies in Paris and Jarnac exemplified the complexity of the enigmatic Mitterrand, who spelled out his burial wishes in his will.


Though throughout the 1960s he hounded his longtime rival -- France's other great modern leader, Charles de Gaulle -- Mitterrand later fully assumed de Gaulle's role as an all-powerful, almost monarchic president.


Affectionately called Tonton (Uncle) by supporters and "God'' by detractors, Mitterrand governed for 14 years with regal aloofness. All the while, he maintained his love for rural France.


"He was clearly one of the architects of the increasing integration of Europe. I think that will be a legacy that people will always remember," said British Prime Minister John Major, who has long opposed Mitterrand's vision of a tightly integrated European Union, as he left the Elysee Palace lunch.


Mitterrand was an eloquent advocate of human rights, Third World development, multiculturalism and racial tolerance.


"His message didn't stop at the borders of France. It was universal," Israel's Peres said. "We will miss him enormously."


Mitterrand came to power in 1981, catapulted by a Socialist-Communist coalition. It later broke up over his shift to less radical policies in 1983, when he was forced by a capital flight to abandon nationalizations and other leftist reforms. His government in later years was plagued by scandals.


Still, thousands have braved the rain each day since his death to deposit red roses -- the Socialist symbol -- outside his office near the Eiffel Tower where he died.


True to Mitterrand's request, about 1,000 people gathered Thursday at Solutre, a great cliff planted among vineyards in southern Burgundy, where Mitterrand made annual spring pilgrimages. It was in nearby Cluny that Mitterrand met his wife, Danielle, in 1943.


Etienne Emmanuelli, a retiree who flew from Marseille to attend Wednesday night's vigil and watch Thursday's Mass from outside, said Mitterrand "will always be present in history."


"He was one of the great men of this world, and he was ours," Emmanuelli said.


In Jarnac, the small town where Mitterrand grew up, locals spoke with a mixture of sadness, fatalism and pride.


Marcel Lagrandeur, 73, a retired hairdresser, remembers games of ping-pong with Mitterrand and his brothers. He brandished a yellowed logbook from 1936 showing table tennis club members. There's the name of the late president, who still owes two balls to the club, as well as brothers Jacques and Robert.


"Fran?ois played well. He played much better than I," Lagrandeur said.


Rene Delage, 82, and Marcel Turcel, 86, also remember "young Fran?ois. He was a rather timid boy but you felt strong character in him," Delage said.


In the bookstore near City Hall, Rene Pillot shows "the president's chair," where Mitterrand liked to sit and leaf through books and talk of literature.