From a great leader, great disappointment

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From a great leader, great disappointment


On the morning of May 17, 1997, a black car left Elysee Palace, the residence of the president of France, with a police escort. Upon reaching the Pont de la Concorde bridge, the car stopped, the back door opened and an elderly man got out. It was Francois Mitterrand, the outgoing president of France.

Mitterrand walked a few steps and got into a much smaller car parked in front of the bridge. The car was a gift from the French Socialist Party in appreciation for his leadership. In the car was Mitterrand’s son, waiting to drive his father home. The car crossed the Seine River and headed to the 7th arrondissement, the location of the former president’s new home. As the car made its way down the street, the car was stopped several times by traffic lights. Mitterrand, the longest-serving president who created a fair and unified France, had returned to civilian life.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Mitterrand’s election as president, and the French media are busy highlighting his life. In addition to his leadership, he is known for his extramarital affairs, most notably with longtime mistress Anne Pingeot, who surprised the public by attending his funeral because she had previously been a well-kept secret. Nevertheless, the French still hold him in such high regard that he could compete with Charles de Gaulle as the country’s most respected president.

The French people’s affection for de Gaulle epitomizes the unconditional respect and love that citizens can have for former presidents. Upon his retirement, de Gaulle returned to his hometown. He had revived war-torn France and led the Allied victory, but he refused to be buried in the Pantheon, a mausoleum reserved for distinguished French citizens. Instead, he was buried next to his daughter, who had died at an early age. His coffin was no larger than those of average citizens and had no more decoration.

Koreans may have similar feelings about their leaders, but some Korean leaders do not always meet the public’s expectations after they retire. They may even, as in the case of President Lee Myung-bak, disappoint us before then. Lee’s involvement in a controversial plan to build his retirement residence on a site in Naegok-dong, southern Seoul, is a case in point. My guess is that the disappointment citizens feel about the whole affair is not likely to disappear easily. It is regrettable that we cannot just end the controversy and remember Lee as one of our great leaders.

*The writer is the J Editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Hoon-beom
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