Symbols matter in politics – not just to commemorate but to reflect about today.The breakfast between eight Czechoslovak dissidents and French President François Mitterrand in 1988 is indeed an important symbol. Similar strong political symbols are equally important today.
The breakfast event to commemorate and discuss the 25th anniversary of the meeting between President Mitterrand and dissidents was held on December 11, 2013 at the Embassy of France in Prague.
In his welcome remarks, Ambassador of France to the Czech Republic, Jean-Pierre Asvazadourian insisted that the breakfast is still relevant for today’s world. “It has symbolic value that is still very much alive.” He also mentioned that for Mitterrand, one of the explicit conditions to make the trip to Czechoslovakia in 1988 was to meet “those who resisted.”
Director of the Institute for Contemporary History Oldřich Tůma opened his remarks by saying that “We will not know what was served during the breakfast. The historical significance lies in the people who shared the table.” He further highlighted President Mitterrand’s political instincts. “The breakfast can be just as easily attributed to Mitterrand’s foresight and political intuition – perhaps he was laying the groundwork of new French positions in Central and Eastern Europe already in 1988.”
Stanislas Mrozek, then First Secretary at the Embassy of France in Prague, recalled the special relationship he built with Czechoslovak dissidents during his time at the Embassy. “The relationships were friendly, spontaneous and simple – in spite of the tension and all the insecurity for those people. Such relationships were of course very useful for my task, to hear what they had to say and translate this to my government.” In preparing the breakfast in 1988, Mrozek recalls that the Embassy staff was “living in a situation of stress” and “did not know what would happen – the visit was planned and agreed, but in the last moments something could always happen.” Due to the fact that no police reprisals followed, Mrozek remembers that he “had the feeling that the end of something was beginning.”
Original participant of the breakfast meeting in 1988, Karel Srp, has brought up his memories of meeting Communist Party elites at various banquets at the Embassy. “Towards the end of one of the banquets to which I was invited, I even have seen the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Bohuslav Chňoupek kissing the hand of the symbol of anti-communism – Cardinal Tomášek.”
Linking the symbolic breakfast event to contemporary practice, Rostislav Valvoda mentioned the case of Azerbaijan. He explicitly stated that the practice of congratulating President Aliyev for his recent re-election in rigged elections goes contrary to the values that the breakfast with Mitterrand embodied. He opined that current practice is to do such acts in secret way – according to him, this does not work. “Would we be here today if President Mitterrand would have the dissidents huddled in through the backdoor, desperate not to tell the Czechoslovak authorities? I think not.”
Jacques Rupnik, political analyst, followed suit in saying that the debate about supporting pro-democracy initiatives is a struggle between the idealists (supporting human rights issues) and the true realists (supporting economic interests). According to his opinion, such a debate turns out to be either too simplistic or preposterous. “We have no evidence it has harmed economic relations and business in the long term.”
Rupnik has admitted that in 1988 he was quite ambivalent about the president’s visit. “I was apprehensive about the use and abuse the authorities could make of this. I was reassured and delighted that president met with dissidents and visited the grave of Masaryk – this was a double symbol.”
During the discussion, Petr Kolář, former diplomat, asked Rostislav Valvoda if he could identify any European statesman who is in contemporary Europe symbolizing something as Mitterrand did. Valvoda’s answer was: Angela Merkel and Joachim Gauck.
Jan Sokol later claimed that Mitterrand’s act “helped to legitimize a future partner for discussion.” He deemed that after the breakfast, there was no question of who would be the speaker of the “silent majority.”