Veni, Vidi, Vichy

Jean-Pierre Chapelas

  • Une Jeunesse française: François Mitterrand 1934-1947 by Pierre Péan
    Fayard, 615 pp, frs 160.00, September 1994, ISBN 2 213 59300 0

A provincial boy (from the Charentes), a Catholic, not necessarily Action Française, but certainly on the extreme, or at any rate hard right, ambitious, intelligent, fond of disguises, fully determined from the start to work for the greater glory of François Mitterrand. But with one ‘gap’, as it were, through which the wind from the left could come gusting in, that same left which in his young days our hero had so vigorously rejected. This boy from the South-West, educated in private schools and later a student in Paris, became enamoured – and why blame him? – of a social Christianity, an ideology that could if need be turn into Christian socialism and then into socialism pure and simple. Though not without faintly cynical, often inelegant motives on the part of the (future) leader of the Socialists. But let me not anticipate.

During the Thirties, the young Mitterrand could on occasion turn into a street demonstrator, opposed to the métèques, to the immigrants who for good or ill had in those inter-war years become part of France. Nothing as yet that might foreshadow the future leader of the nation’s Left. Nothing, unless it was an unyielding drive for social advancement, decked out in the Florentine graces of a Machiavellianism that aimed higher than the local préfecture. His views were decidedly right-wing, but, contrary perhaps to what people might have vaguely supposed, we can allow that Mitterrand was never really part of the quasi-Fascist (and on occasion terrorist) Cagoule, even if he had some very strange and compromising friendships in that direction – friendships that he scrupulously maintained over several decades almost up until now, when the former Cagoulards are naturally dying out.

Mitterrand served in the Army in the Phoney War of 1939-40, and was then taken prisoner by the Germans. He made several attempts to escape, of which, as is only right, various versions exist, some of them reflecting very great glory on the man concerned. After which he displayed what the younger generations find it so hard to understand, misled as they have been by simplistic, demonising propaganda: an unshakeable loyalty to Marshal Pétain, evident, seemingly, from his time as a prisoner, combined with an attitude of open hostility towards the German invaders. As Edgar Morin did well to point out recently, at that time patriotism was often the link between Vichy and the Resistance. After an umpteenth escape attempt, Mitterrand finally succeeded in giving the stalag and the Wehrmacht the slip. And from January 1942, he settled – who would have credited it? – in a small town in Auvergne, in Vichy! A well-nigh incredible choice when there were so many other towns in Southern France, both large and small, and one that should have aroused the suspicions of all those – they are legion – who have long been searching out the least hint of Vichyism among present-day survivors from that difficult time. Everywhere, except, of course, in the Elysée Palace. Was this an innocent omission? It’s true that as far as these researchers were concerned Mitterrand was on the left and therefore, by definition, as white as snow.

To begin with, Mitterrand worked on documentation in the Pétainist capital, concerned, as he has now admitted, with Communists and Gaullists (sic). Both of them were of course seen as potentially dangerous. According to the historians, he was a hardline Pétainist, but not anti-semitic. We can take that as a good sign. But when Mitterrand claims, against all the evidence, that he knew nothing (sic) of the anti-Jewish measures then being taken in Vichy, measures that were posted up on every wall, who is he kidding? In 1942, a fateful year for the Jews, the future President of the Republic couldn’t be accused of being either naive or ignorant. One might suppose he was taking us for suckers – and that he mightn’t be altogether wrong to do so. It’s true that, according to her son, François Mitterrand’s mother was not anti-semitic, but that proves nothing about the opinions of her offspring and one is astonished that this son, having now reached old age, should think it right to revert to arguments of such a kind, which are completely irrelevant even if sanctified by genuine family affection.

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