December 1988: Mitterrand meets dissidents in Prague

Václav Havel and Francois Mitterrand (right)

In the second half of the 1980s the sweeping reforms in the Soviet Union were being echoed in several of the country’s Eastern Bloc satellites. But in Czechoslovakia there were few signs of change, despite growing diplomatic pressure from abroad. A key moment came in December 1988, when President Francois Mitterrand made the first ever official trip to Czechoslovakia by a French head of state. This was part of a broader attempt to improve dialogue with communist countries, but Mitterrand also came with clear human rights agenda. Just before his trip he was interviewed by Czechoslovak Radio:

“I shall be meeting various representatives of your society, including your political life in all its diversity, including the opposition. I shall express myself freely, with the respect that a state and a people deserve, and I am hoping that current positive trends will accelerate. At the moment exchanges between our countries are poor – in all fields. They could be much richer.”

During the visit – and much to the annoyance of Czechoslovakia’s communist leaders - the French President had an unprecedented breakfast meeting at the French Embassy with eight Charter 77 dissident activists including Václav Havel. Mitterrand returned home on December 10 1988, which coincided with Human Rights Day. To mark the event, three thousand people attended a demonstration on the Prague square, Škroupovo náměstí, appealing for greater recognition of human rights. Coming so soon after such a high-profile visit, the demonstration was allowed to go ahead – for the first time in nearly two decades.

But just five weeks later, riot police were out in the streets again with water canon. It was the twentieth anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, the student who had set himself alight on Prague’s Wenceslas Square in protest against public apathy after the Soviet-led invasion in August 1968. For a whole week, in mid-January 1989, thousands of people attended demonstrations to remember Palach’s sacrifice, and appealing for democratic reform.

The police, politicians and the official media showed little sign of the greater tolerance that the French president’s visit had seemed to herald and the protests were put down by force. Here is an extract from one of Czechoslovak Radio’s reports on the demonstrations, steeped in the official jargon of the time:

“The presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia met today to discuss a number of issues, including the situation created by attempted anti-state demonstrations. It praised attempts by communists, members of other political parties and non-party members to maintain calm and order, it expressed its support for law enforcers and for the People’s Militia. It praised their political awareness and discipline.”

But the genie had been let out of the bottle. The scale of the demonstrations had boosted the confidence of those campaigning for reform. Five months later the petition known as “Několik vět” (a few sentences) was launched by Charter 77 activists, calling for greater political openness and the release of political prisoners. By the end of July 1989, just weeks after the petition was launched, over ten thousand people had signed. By the end of the year the regime had fallen.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on June 18, 2009.

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