Prague to recreate 1988 Mitterrand breakfast in human rights gesture

Francois Mitterrand had breakfast with leading dissidents in Prague in 1988, photo: archive of French Embassy in Prague

In December 1988 Francois Mitterrand had breakfast with leading dissidents in Prague, providing a major shot in the arm to the Czechoslovak opposition. The Czech Foreign Ministry is now reported to be planning similar events on the 30th anniversary of Mitterrand’s gesture to demonstrate the country’s support for human rights.

Francois Mitterrand had breakfast with leading dissidents in Prague in 1988,  photo: archive of French Embassy in Prague
On December 8, 1988 Francois Mitterrand began a two-day visit to Czechoslovakia. He was the first French president ever to visit the country.

While in Prague, Mitterrand made a gesture that provided a much-appreciated shot in the arm to the country’s opposition, organising a breakfast at his country’s embassy with leading representatives of the Czechoslovak dissent.

These included Václav Havel, Václav Malý, Jiří Dientsbier, Petr Uhl and others associated with the Charter 77 movement.

Though the December 9 meeting was officially sanctioned, Havel famously told Mitterrand that he had a toothbrush on him as he couldn’t be certain he wouldn’t end up in custody the same day.

Speaking to Czech Radio a few years ago, Petr Uhl recalled the breakfast at the 17th century Buquoy Palace in the Malá Strana district.

“For us it was amazing support, because he was the first head of state to meet with us. It was his clear condition. Husák and the others knew that if they had forbidden the meeting he wouldn’t have come, or met with them. We spoke for so long that he stayed half an hour longer than planned. That meant that his audience with Husák was half an hour late, because he’d been speaking to us – and Husák knew that.”

Also present at the famous meal was Karel Srp. Today a controversial figure, in 1988 he was chairman of the Jazz Section, a relatively large anti-regime organisation.

Karel Srp,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“It was a nervous breakfast, because we expected they’d arrest us all. Luckily that didn’t happen, thanks to Mitterrand, because Husák had told him it was all the same who he met in his free time. It was fantastic, because Mitterrand was a master of diplomacy. He radiated political potency and positive energy.”

Now, to mark next month’s 30th anniversary of the breakfast, the Czech Foreign Ministry is planning to pay homage to Mitterrand’s gesture of solidarity, the website of weekly Respekt reported this week.

The recently appointed minister of foreign affairs, Tomáš Petříček, told Respekt that his department was considering holding similar breakfasts at various places around the world to which local dissidents and activists would be invited.

The move would be in line with Mr. Petříček’s stated intention of reviving Prague’s support for human rights internationally. While this was a pillar of the country’s foreign policy in the past, it has been somewhat side-lined in recent years.