Did France need François Mitterrand? I hope not: the man was so vain, so shallow, so duplicitous, so amoral. It wasn’t just that you couldn’t believe anything he said: you couldn’t even consistently believe its opposite. In fact, you couldn’t listen to him without feeling you had somehow been deceived. When this deeply cynical politician placed his hand on his heart, spoke about the poor, reminded you that he had never been interested in money, even as a child, and smiled through his bloodless lips, then you could be pretty sure he was lying. But it was not always so: Mitterrand wasn’t bad through and through. You couldn’t just turn your back on this fake leftist and vote for the Right with a happy heart. At times, to complicate matters hopelessly, he was quite sincere. He wasn’t devious for the sake of deviousness. Nor did he simply find goodness less interesting than malice. He misled others – Rocard, the Communists, the Socialists; and in his youth, Fascists, Pétainists and Gaullists – ceaselessly but mostly he did it in order to achieve some goal. To be sure, the goal was usually an enhancement of his own power and prestige. For example, when he went to Sarajevo he thoroughly bamboozled French humanitarian workers, not to speak of the Bosnians and the world: they really did think he would help them.

Sometimes he even used his power to good ends. He was a convinced European. He sincerely wanted the French and the Germans to be friends. And some of his grands projets have their positive side. I can’t see what the Grande Arche does for Paris, but the Pyramide du Louvre is a plus. And the Bibliothèque de France, thanks to which I became (rather briefly) his personal enemy, is a genuinely good thing. Of course, Mitterrand cares nothing for scholarship, readers and professors (though he affects to like Fifties-Modern Kulchur). But he did make the project feasible. He found the money. The new British Library, starved of funds, has proceeded by fits and starts. Not so in Paris, thanks to Monsieur le Président: this tale of two libraries says a lot about the way the West’s two oldest nation-states manage their cultural affairs.

I got involved when an article I’d written on the plans for the new Library was translated in Paris and caused a stir there, because up until then no one seemed to have realised that the whole thing was a political project, not simply a cultural or scholarly one. I was invited to expand on my views by the civil servants of the Interior Ministry responsible for the Library, and then appeared on television, on Bernard Pivot’s programme – one result of which was an invitation from the office of the then mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, to go in and talk to him about it; which I did.

The new French Library is in one sense a sham: it has books stored in opaque towers. (Originally the towers were to be made of glass so that the sun would have cooked the books to a crisp. Now they will be stored behind a double barrier of wood and cement: and, somewhat disconcertingly, this shift from transparent glass to sun-proof cement, in so far as I had anything to do with it, will surely prove to be my own great contribution to world history.) In the architect Dominique Perrault’s silly design, the readers will be in the basement, one hundred yards from the Seine, but with their backs to the river since the reading-rooms face onto a costly reproduction (in downtown Paris!) of the Forest of Fontainebleau. Still, despite its defiance of common sense and its miserable Stalinist architecture (worthy of Kim II Sung, said the Figaro) the new Library is a grand thing, and it was François Mitterrand who caused it to be built.

Besides, it was also thanks to François III (indirectly) that I secured the bollard of my dreams. As the National Library was being discussed, the Service des Voiries happened to be redoing the narrow pavement on my street, the rue Rollin, but had their plan come to pass, ingenious interlopers would surely have been able to park right up against my front door. I complained about the plan, but to the wrong office. Undaunted, I complained once more, still to no avail. Then I became famous (briefly, as just noted, but that was all I needed) and by magic one day, the mother of all bollards suddenly materialised by my front door, a most happy event that surely stands (quite durably) at the intersection of two legacies: the French, ludovician, absolutist bureaucracy’s right to ignore everyone; and the people’s revolutionary right to complain and be heard, provided they are sufficiently pistonné.

Did I dislike the man before I became embroiled in the Great Library Flap? Alas, I cannot claim this because I did not then care too much about him one way or the other: modern French politics seemed so pale, so wan next to those of 1789. What difference did it make in the end if Mitterrand told the truth or not? On the other hand, until I actually met him, I was actively suspicious of Chirac, with his incoherent politics and what I took to be his calculated tolerance of right-wing nastiness. At the same time he was the popular and efficient mayor of the world’s best run city. Yet even there, contradictions kept on creeping into view: the quality of the city’s water, amiably known to the locals as Château-Chirac, is quite good. On the other hand, there was less to admire when the actual château that Chirac purchased in the Corrèze suddenly became a monument classé, which meant that the French state would have to foot part of the new owner’s large repair bills. Accused of indelicacy by the press, he sued and won.

Ambiguity and contradiction: Chirac ran Paris well, but at times with a decidedly firm hand One early morning, as I walked down my own street, newspaper and baguette in hand, I found an impressive number of police vans and dozens of CRS guards, armed with assault rifles and growling dogs on quite long leashes, clearing out the squatters who’d moved into the abandoned house next door to ours. I was glad the druggie squatters were going but the incident did not completely please me. (Some weeks before – different baguette, same street – I walked by to find the school doors open and the courtyard bedecked with banners proclaiming the USA to be The One Great Satan. Kalashnikovs were stacked in the school yard where a gored ox was turning on a spit. An Ulema was chanting the Koran. My zeal for multicultural tolerance plummeted until I realised that the place had been turned into a movie set for a film on the Iranian Revolution.) Thanks to Chirac and Jean Tibéri, the mayor of the Fifth Arrondissement, who is today the new mayor of Paris, the rue Rollin has a new neo-medieval pavement and many new neo-18th-century, bronze-coloured lanterns. Quite a success really, and year after year, some Japanese film company comes to visit. The clochards, however, who used to abound, no longer visit, and I don’t quite know how I feel about their disappearance either.

In public, Chirac has seemed to have a dark side, but in private, he is a warm and unusually likeable, at times deliberately vulgar man: he smokes a lot and likes off-colour jokes. He’s against the death penalty and has done a great deal to improve the condition of the mentally retarded. I would not have voted for him, but I am glad he was elected President. When I met him in his palatial mayoral office (the largest office anywhere in Paris) I found him attentive, eager to get the message about the new French National Library, and unlike Mitterrand, genuinely interested in books and readers: does Clinton, Kohl or Major have an interest in African art, Asian archaeology, Chinese poetry (especially the work of Tou Fou, 712-70), or Japanese literature? (Chirac goes to Japan yearly.) He was nice to the secretaries, and inquired about a baby’s toothache. He expects to be betrayed because that, he says, is what politics are about; but he is loyal to his friends as he was loyal to his elders, Pompidou especially. Where Mitterrand was intolerably full of himself, Chirac as a private person is quite sympathique. On television, he comes across very poorly, stiff and brusque. (‘Je me trouve plutôt moche,’ he says of these performances.) But in private, he has a winning manner. He also really believes he is not smart, and that, too, is not the case.

Even Chirac’s family background is full of contradictions. His grandfathers, both school teachers, were hard-core radical-socialists (i.e. left-of-centre anti-clericals). His father was a successful right-wing banker who started as a bank clerk. For an entire two weeks, as an adolescent, Chirac was a Communist; and Rocard thinks he might have converted him to social ism had he – Rocard – been just a bit taller. He is quite short and Chirac is over six feet.) As a youth, and before marrying the niece of the French Ambassador to Britain, he slummed about for a while, even doing a stint as a deckhand on a tramp steamer In 1953 he attended Harvard Summer School by day and at night worked as a bus-boy at a Howard Johnson, but soon won promotion and went on to stoop the 28 flavours. In Cambridge, too, he was briefly engaged to an American heiress, who used to pick him up after work in her father’s white Cadillac. Not surprisingly, he speaks excellent American English.

Although he was very slow to give up on a French Algeria, he is genuinely repelled by racism. (‘Il y a une chose qui me ferait prendreles armes et descendre dans la rue: c’est le racisme.’) In 1977, he went out of his way to help the Vietnamese boat people. When those who were seeking refuge in France were due to arrive in Paris, he went to the airport to welcome them, and struck by the plight of a particularly unhappy-looking young woman who had no money, no skills, no friends and no family, took her in and adopted her – a fact which only became known quite recently thanks to the indiscretion of a journalist.

What Chirac wants and how he will achieve it no one knows, perhaps not even Chirac. Since May 1968, he has held politicians in low esteem, and he does not much like top professional civil servants either, many of them – like himself and his prime minister Alain Juppé – graduates of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. And his programme is no clearer. In the recent past, he has been in favour of both a planned and a Reaganite economy, for and against a reform of the welfare state, for and against a closely integrated Europe. It’s impossible to see how he can both defend the franc fort and be serious about unemployment. Serendipity will be his strongest suit.

But today, no one seems to mind his changes and hesitations. Before, he seemed contradictory and confused, impulsive and forever waving his long arms in the air. He wasn’t Presidential. In 1973, a stolid, 230-pound Bavarian minister of agriculture urged him publicly to consult a psychiatrist. But now the once excitable Chirac wears double-breasted grey and dark blue suits. He has calmed down quite a lot, and the French see in his less fevered searchings an oddly appropriate mirror for their own ambiguous state of mind Although the majority of people in fiance are well off, the fear of unemployment runs high. The poor resent the migrants whose very picsence reminds them of their own declining status: more French workers voted for Le Pen than for the socialist Jospin. (Jaurès must be spinning in his grave.) And in much the same way, bourgeois families are shocked to see that even their gifted children will not be able to replicate their own achievements. Everyone senses that the power of the French nation-state is ebbing and that Europe is France’s destiny, but no one was pleased when British Airways had to be granted landing-rights at Orly. In this confused setting, where retrenchment is the order of the day. Chirac’s contradictions have suddenly become a sign of his humanity and good will. In his inaugural address last month, he explained that he wished ‘to make the French people more united and more equal’. They hope he means it. No doubt he hopes he means it, too, but how he might make it happen isn’t yet clear.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences