THREE PERSONALITIES dominated French national life in this century: Georges Clemenceau, "the Tiger" who was premier in World War I; Charles de Gaulle, the general who raised France from defeat to victory in World War II and later had a constitution tailored to his presidential dimensions; and Francois Mitterrand, the austere and haughty president who helped design everything from an opera house to the unity of Europe in a 14-year presidency ending last year before his death Saturday at 79.
His partnership with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl through the 1980s is the core around which the European Union and the plans for a single currency revolve. It included suspension of nuclear tests, which his successor reinstated, and other curbs to nationalism.
Yet grandeur on the model of his mentor, model and nemesis, Charles de Gaulle, was present in Mr. Mitterrand's manner and vision. He had the great National Library built, though scholars wonder at putting one library in four towers; the Opera at Bastille, moving the heart of Paris culture eastward; the great suburban development arch, La Defense, on a line with the Arch of Triumph; and the expanded Louvre, linked in a glass pyramid by the American architect, I. M. Pei.
Twice in two seven-year terms, French voters repudiated the Socialist president by electing conservative National Assembly majorities, forcing his "co-habitation" with a conservative cabinet. Mr. Mitterrand made it work.
He was a rightist as a young man, even a collaborator with German occupation who later joined the Resistance and was rewarded with a cabinet seat when barely into his 30s. He revived a dead Socialist Party in 1971, purporting to be a man of the left, and rode it to power as president in 1981. Many worried at his alliance with the Communists, but he stifled them in embrace. He was a statist builder, political boss, dispenser of patronage, almost a king, but never a true-believing Socialist.
The French were ready to dump Mr. Mitterrand had he sought a third term, but he was dying last year. Already they miss him. His legacy will be debated in France as long as Clemenceau's and de Gaulle's.