December 9, 1988: A breakfast that made history

Francois Mitterrand

Thirty five years ago, then French president Francois Mitterrand met with a group of Czech dissidents, led by Václav Havel.

Francois Mitterrand had breakfast with leading dissidents in Prague in 1988 | Photo: archive of French Embassy in Prague
Francois Mitterrand had breakfast with leading dissidents in Prague in 1988 | Photo: archive of French Embassy in Prague

Mitterrand was the first French president to visit Prague since the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He set down a firm condition for the visit- that Czechoslovakia’s communist leaders would allow him to meet with dissidents.

Mitterrand made public this condition in an interview for Czechoslovak Radio on the eve of his visit. "I will meet with various representatives of your society, including representatives of public life and including members of the opposition. I will express myself freely and with the respect due to the state and the people," the French president said.

The first taste of freedom

Francois Mitterrand and Václav Havel | Photo: ČT24

The dissidents who attended the famous breakfast in the Lesser Town's Buquoy Palace, the seat of the French Embassy, were Václav Havel, Jiří Dienstbier, Karel Srp, Miloš Hájek, Václav Malý, Petr Uhl, Ladislav Lis and Rudolf Battěk. "It was a great show of support for us, because he was the first head of state to meet with us," Petr Uhl recalled years later in an interview for Czech Radio.

Mitterrand opened the breakfast with the prophetic words that he was "happy to be meeting with the country’s future leaders." The meeting was very cordial and the originally planned three-quarters of an hour stretched into an hour-and-a-half. Czechoslovakia’s last communist president and party leader Gustav Husak had to wait for the dissidents to "finish their breakfast".

The invitation card | Photo: ČT24

To breakfast with a toothbrush

French Embassy in Prague | Photo: Thibaut Maillet,  Radio Prague International

What was discussed at the breakfast? Human rights and the political situation in the country. Mitterrand famously asked Václav Havel how his activities in defence of human rights impacted his personal life. Havel replied that he always carries a toothbrush on his person because he never knows how the day will end. "I was sure they would stop us from getting to the embassy and take us to the secret police for questioning. But they didn't stop us," Havel recalled later.

The bust of Francois Mitterrand in the gardens of Prague Castle | Photo: Vojtěch Kouřímský,

Mitterrand's visit also contributed to the first-ever official authorization of an opposition rally on Human Rights Day on December 10, 1988 in Žižkov, where Václav Havel spoke. Further demonstrations came during Palach Week in January 1989. These were severely repressed, but the road to the Velvet Revolution was open. And in the course of that breakfast Francois Mitterrand established a lasting personal friendship with the future president of Czechoslovakia.

In 2015 a bust of François Mitterrand was installed in the gardens below Prague Castle to commemorate the legendary meeting. Its author is Jan Zelenka, a Czech sculptor living in France. The bust was commissioned by the Jazz Section.

Source: Český rozhlas