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Une Jeunesse française: François Mitterrand 1934-1947 
by Pierre Péan.
Fayard, 615 pp., frs 160, September 1994, 2 213 59300 0
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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.

In spring 1942, still in Vichy, Mitterrand was drafted into that part of the administration concerned with prisoners of war, of whom there were several million, held against their will in Nazi Germany. The former escapee was thus dealing with his companions in distress and of that one can only approve. But – and there is a ‘but’ – he doesn’t appear to have objected to the idea of co-operating in this with the government of Pierre Laval, himself one of the most hardline figures in the Marshal’s four-year reign. Indeed, the idea seems at times to have aroused his enthusiasm, to judge by the private letters that he wrote in that year. (The refusal of the Mitterrandistes to allow this epistolary archive to be used by historians is quite contrary to the accepted practices of the historical profession.)

There is no reason to doubt Mitterrand’s own word, however, when he says that Vichy’s prisoner-of-war department fitted very happily with the Germanophobe, and/or Naziphobe, urges that had inspired a great many Vichyssois from the start. Its aim was to effect the escape of French prisoners back to their native soil, an undertaking that does credit to Mitterrand and his new colleagues. The President is overstating things, however, when he says that at the time he saw Pétain as the shield of France and de Gaulle as the sword. Why, here once again, should we take our ‘socialist’ leader’s word for it? It was up to Mitterrand and him alone to provide evidence for the opinions he now lends himself retrospectively. After all, his sentiments towards de Gaulle have been unfailingly hostile since well before 1950 and constitute one of the few permanent features of a very tortuous political career. One can but be totally sceptical of the crypto-Gaullism, however moderate, that he claims to have professed in the ‘year of Laval’ from his office in Vichy. Mitterrand an anti-German Pétainist in 1942? Very probably. A cleverly camouflaged Gaullist? Absolutely not.

The young Vichy functionary’s true political vocation over the next few years now became clear: to use the two million French prisoners as both a launching-pad and a strike force for a career in high leadership. One can understand that this vast ambition should have helped to conceal from Mitterrand the ghastly facts of the Jewish deportations, notably after the round-up in the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris. But then almost no one knew of them at the time. However, it also involved his accepting without too much ado the German Army’s invasion of the Unoccupied Zone in November 1942.

This was also the time when Mitterrand started to indulge the literary vocation that seems to have niggled at him all his life. In 1942 he wrote some quite pleasant literary essays that were published in a Pétainist review, alongside some embarrassing pieces of anti-semitism. In these essays Mitterrand makes no bones about his royalism, or at least his aversion for the Republic, which he sees as having been on the wrong track ever since 1792, the year of its first founding. In 1943 he even received a decoration, in return for his loyal service to the Marshal. He was subsequently to make many fairly futile attempts to mislead people about this, though without convincing many of them, except for the pure-blooded Mitterrandistes.

In the Seventies, he managed to brand the right-wing followers of Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac as Vichyites, convinced that no one would dare to return the embarrassing ‘compliment’, though in his case they would have been fully justified in doing so. No one did return it. Mitterrand’s immunity has been astonishing. For almost fifty years his opponents in Parliament and in government have been constrained to silence, not daring to bring the Vichy skeleton out of the Mitterrand cupboard. But then what would we expect from a political class, both of the left and above all of the right, which remained standing dutifully to attention when Mitterrand, contrary to all the obligations of a French Head of State, had the audacity to select a valuable manuscript from the national collections and offer it to the President of South Korea? The same act perpetrated in Britain, at the expense of the British Museum, would have raised a storm. But this was France, where those who have power over you also have immunity.

The young Mitterrand’s loyalty to the Marshal is not to be gainsaid. It’s true that it changed direction, however, once the Allies had finally got the upper hand over the Nazis. A policy of wait-and-see was then no longer the thing. In June 1940, a slightly eccentric figure such as de Gaulle could take up a position in favour of the ‘English-speaking world’; for anyone else it would have been risky. By autumn 1943 doubt was no longer possible, the direction in which History was moving was clear: Hitler had lost the war. From then on, Mitterrand steered the prisoner-of-war movement he was in charge of almost openly in an anti-German direction, which anyway fitted in with his natural inclinations as a patriot.

In this, it should be stressed, the young leader was in full agreement with Pétain’s entourage and with Pétain himself, in whose company he was photographed in October 1942. There is no lack of such picturesque photographs of the President: a similar snapshot shows him, thirty or so years later, in the company of René Bousquet, one of those who was responsible, admittedly under Nazi orders, for the Jewish deportations of 1942. Mitterrand has said that he had no contact with Bousquet during that crucial year, and why should we not believe him? Yet Bousquet’s ‘team’ – not the full line-up but its most representative members – were present and active in one of Mitterrand’s principal ministries in 1954, in the days of the Fourth Republic. And even when he became President of the Fifth Republic, Mitterrand continued to meet Bousquet from time to time, as between friends. It’s true that in the Sixties, when he enjoyed considerable influence – and one wonders why – at the Dépêche du Midi, the main left-wing paper of the South-West, Bousquet strongly supported Mitterrand’s first candidature for the Presidency. And we know that our great politician never forgets a favour, even when it involves an acquaintanceship that has to be looked on as dubious. How amusing, though, to thumb your nose, discreetly if not secretly, at a naive and altogether unknowing Left that has just chosen you as its providential leader. The recently murdered Bousquet carried more than one secret with him to the grave.

The year 1943 could obviously have led to anything provided one survived it. As the autumn leaves fell, Mitterrand, faithful as ever to Pétain, tilted right over. Not as he would like us to believe in the direction of the Resistance with a capital R – the armed resistance, that is. That was never his cup of tea: it was only at the time of his first Presidency in the Eighties that the group he was an active member of in 1943-4 was ever adjudged, by very understanding judges, to have formed part of that. Mitterrand’s oscillation led all the same to a new way of life, the logic of events meaning that he had to wrap himself in secrecy. A political force was now created, whose vocation was anti-German and whose task, looking ahead to the end of the war and what would then follow, was to enrol the mass of former prisoners.

The break came in November 1943. Mitterrand went underground, though, paradoxically, without really going into hiding, as was often the case at that tragic and romantic time. At the end of the year, he was in London, then, after a detour, in Algiers. There he met de Gaulle, who evidently received him very frostily, his aides having warned him against this ambiguous figure, a former Vichyite of the purest stamp, and a résistant of the 11th, if not quite the 25th hour. Moreover, true to his Pétainist affiliations, Mitterrand backed General Giraud, which will not have pleased de Gaulle. Giraud was a brave soldier, not very intelligent, anti-German beyond question, a patriot and a Pétainist or ex-Pétainist. For Mitterrand he was quite simply the option best suited to his personal inclinations, except for the fact that de Gaulle was about to swallow Giraud whole, thereby jeopardising this colourless soldier’s subordinates and clients. In a word, François Mitterrand risked ‘falling’ via Giraud.

By early 1944, however, Mitterrand had more or less won de Gaulle’s favour. Then, as on so many subsequent occasions, he showed his remarkable gift for political survival. Vichy was forgotten, Pétain even was forgotten! During the first six months of that year of liberation, Mitterrand became a prominent, though not crucial, figure in the internal Resistance, answering broadly speaking to de Gaulle. In August he took part in the liberation of Paris, in the course of which one of his essential tasks was to take a grip on the prisoners’ organisations set up under Vichy. These had been granted precious new funds that would naturally depend on the fate of the administration that held them, once it had passed into the hands of its new leaders, whether Mitterrandist or Gaullist or something similar. It was now that Mitterrand’s path crossed that of Marguerite Duras, a young writer of the brand-new Fourth Republic, who never subsequently made any mystery of the fact that in the year of grace 1944 she felt no scruples about torturing the imprisoned collaborators over whom she was watching.

The political trajectory of this still very young man (he wasn’t thirty) was about to become something to marvel at. He now launched blistering attacks (though at times with qualifications that only the initiated would understand) on the Vichy régime to which he had been so firmly attached only eighteen months before. His was the classic ardour of the neophyte. It’s not out of the question that he may have been sincere. As André Gide once said, faith isn’t always the right faith. After 1944-5, Mitterrand even went in for left-wing ideas, while being quite ready to give them up again temporarily a few months later, when the opportunity came to get himself elected as deputy for the Nièvre by the electors of the hard, not to say extreme right. Various proclamations in the press and on the hustings attest these successive about-turns. We can be confident that on each occasion Mitterrand came very quickly to believe his own account, since every turn he made he made in order to advance his career. Therein lies our hero’s greatness.

Today, Mitterrand’s mere name is enough to ensure that the various books devoted to him sell in their hundreds of thousands, as they trace the successive avatars by means of which this former Vichyssois became the most significant (socialist, as it happens) political figure of the Eighties and early Nineties. Philippe Alexandre, for example, has examined the great man’s very private life and shown us around the public buildings into which he has inserted it. Other authors have shown beyond all possible doubt that the rise of Jean-Marie le Pen was mightily encouraged during the Eighties, notably among the television channels, by the Head of State himself, who was anxious to create a populist and extremist rival to the liberal Right that he sees as his true enemy. In a formidable bestseller, Jean Montaldo has fretted over Mitterrand’s money dealings. As a Christian (?), Mitterrand holds money to be corrupting but he hasn’t always scorned its glamour or its pleasures.

In a positively Shakespearian end-game, there have been deaths: of René Bousquet, and of three of the people who knew most about the various intrigues – Pelat, Pierre Bérégovoy and de Grossouvre, two of whom perished by their own hand, one within the precincts of the Elysée Palace itself. Death has taken up residence in the King’s crown. Tragedies, and also peccadillos. Some years ago, the ‘plumbers’ from the Elysée installed several listening devices in central Paris. In the United States there was talk of impeachment for less. In the Hexagon, there is no impeachment clause (the word comes from the French empêcher) written into the Gaullist Constitution of 1958. Merci de Gaulle! And let’s not overlook the suicide in November 1993 of one of this Elysian Watergate’s minor actors threatened by the thunderbolts of the Law – which is hard on minor figures and merciful towards the major, or at least the Very Major.

The Head of State is now a very sick man, and bearing his illness with courage. He is about to make a dignified, admirable, triumphant exit from the stage. Bravo l’ artiste! So let us hope that this exit may last as long as possible. But even if, sadly, the dénouement is to come sooner rather than later, our imprescriptible right to criticise should not be suppressed. Louis XIV was a great king, yet his English, Dutch and Huguenot adversaries never ceased, and rightly, to attack him in their writings, even when he was at his sickest, in the crucial weeks of 1715.

The essential element in this whole story remains Vichy. It has now been unveiled for us in this typically sympathetic and modest account by the journalist Pierre Péan. No other current European head of state can boast of having so ‘complex’ a personal history. It is intriguing, therefore, to realise that such distinguished academic historians of the Pétain regime as Henry Rousso and the rest have long been winkling out the collaborators of those four years, or simply the Vichyites and ex-Vichyites, unearthing and denouncing them everywhere except in the place where one of them, and by no means the least, was most visible: the Elysée Palace where the leader of the Socialist Party, whose insignia was the pinkest of pink roses, had ended up, seated on the topmost pinnacle of the Republic. Well I never! The Pink Panther definitely has more than one trick up his sleeve: in this investigation Inspector Clouzot has once again proved his reputation for incompetence.

Send Letters To:

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Letters

Vol. 17 No. 6 · 23 March 1995

Your pseudonymous reviewer of François Mitterrand’s biography (LRB, 9 March) inserts – for no discernible reason, since it connects to nothing else in the review – a paragraph in which it’s alleged that Marguerite Duras ‘never subsequently made any mystery of the fact … that she felt no scruples about torturing the imprisoned collaborators over whom she was watching’. Presumably this refers to the short story ‘Albert of the Capitals’ in her collection La Douleur (1985). Now certainly there are suggestions of identification between the author and the woman who in this work of fiction tortures a Gestapo informer, but it is hardly conclusive evidence of what Duras actually did in 1944. ‘Jean-Pierre Chapelas’ is therefore being somewhat economical with the truth. Moreover, the story is precisely about the scruples felt by the protagonist and the effort she makes to overcome them.

Willie Thompson
Caledonian University

Vol. 17 No. 7 · 6 April 1995

In some circumstances, it’s justifiable to grant anonymity to governmental whistle-blowers. However, the review of Une jeunesse française (LRB, 9 March) was permeated by the arguments and style most commonly associated with academic reviewers. If such is the case, anonymity liberated an armchair polemicist to ascend to ever-greater heights of stylistic tomfoolery and moral flippancy. Evidently, the pseudonymous reviewer conceives his ‘imprescribable right to criticise’ as entailing no public accountability, no risk to his own professional reputation, and no sense of personal responsibility.

Bu Wilson
Iowa City

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