President François Misprint

Richard Mayne

Mitterand? Miterrand? Miterand? The misprints enhance the mystery. A Socialist President with Communists in his Cabinet but a foreign policy more ‘Western’ than General de Gaulle’s. A Fourth Republic politician, mauled by disappointment, who fought back, reorganised his party, and defeated all his rivals at the age of 64. A dour, saturnine figure, heavy-browed, with a high domed forehead, firm folded lips, and eyes like wet pebbles. ‘Florentine’ his enemies called him, thinking of long knives and Renaissance alleys. His friends speak of warmth and impulsive generosity, wit and passion, behind the lonely mask.

He certainly writes well. Even his political tracts are crisp and elegant, sharper than De Gaulle’s marmoreal reflections, far more spirited than the careful prose of Giscard d’Estaing. Like Georges Pompidou, anthologist of poetry, Mitterrand was nurtured on the French classics. Brought up near Cognac in a Catholic family, he was always bookish, and thought of being a priest; later, although a man of action, a Resistance fighter, and a student of Marxism, he seems always to have valued his lifeline to childhood and the past. He plans no Memoirs and writes no Crossman Diaries: but for years he has jotted down a spasmodic Journal more or less intime. In 1975, perhaps to defrost his ‘Florentine’ image, he published a first selection of such notes under the title La Paille et le Grain. Three years later came a further instalment, L’Abeille et l’Architecte – an allusion to Marx’s distinction between the unthinking bee and that self-conscious builder, man.

Mitterrand’s musings contain more wheat than chaff: they also suggest that he’s an artful architect, not just a bee. ‘One must be born in the provinces and feel one’s roots in order to understand instinctively the relationship between human societies and the soil where they live.’ ‘The Americans have dominated by their currency the Europe they liberated by their weapons. The Europeans will free themselves if they can create a currency of their own.’ ‘The Head of Free France had too many henchmen who were tired of being heroes.’ Of Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber: ‘This Reformer recalls le bourgeois gentilhomme.’ ‘To rest takes such an effort that I usually give up.’ ‘Germany grows as Europe shrinks.’ Of Giscard: ‘A barrel-organ Mozart’. ‘Gaullism without De Gaulle? Awkward. Gaullism without the people? Impossible.’ ‘The dictatorship of bugging devices is also that of idiots. What do they do with those millions of stolen words?’ ‘Self-control is the politician’s primary virtue.’ ‘The Western world organises deficits and finances them through inflation.’ ‘Socialism is not a goal but a method.’ ‘Chirac is a De Gaulle with no 18th of June, but available for a 13th of May.’ ‘Proliferation wrecks deterrence ... Indifference rules the world.’

‘How many journalists,’ Mitterrand wonders, ‘have been killed in their first day on the battlefield of literature?’ Himself, he looks like a survivor: he could certainly earn his living by his pen. Unfortunately, to get the full flavour of this journal intime et politique, you have to go to the two-volume original, published by Flammarion and – in the case of the second – also by Le Livre de Poche. The English version is not only imperfect, but cut by about half. On my count, no fewer than 195 entries are missing. They include all the quotations above.

Of course, Mitterrand’s journal is lengthy, and might be thought too much for American and British readers. But the prelims claim that ‘this volume contains the English language translation of two works by François Mitterrand originally published’ etc, etc; and unless the word ‘translation’ has acquired new meaning, that statement is manifestly false. The blurb admits that ‘The Wheat and the Chaff is a selection from François Mitterrand’s diaries’: but so were the original two volumes – so the admission makes little odds. Here and there, the English text contains omission dots: but there’s no suggestion anywhere that purchasers are getting such short measure as this. At times, it even robs the diary of points that Mitterrand’s deliberately making. On Sunday, 27 May, 1973, the Portuguese taxi-driver taking him home remarked: ‘Careful, it’s going to rain tomorrow.’ How could he tell? ‘In my country, we know that May is crazy.’ We turn the page, wondering. Did it rain? The English translation omits Monday’s entry. From the French, we learn that the Portuguese was right.

Even as a partial translation, this version has many faults. On page 45, Mitterrand lunches with Sicco Mansholt, Dutch Resistance hero and inventor of the European Community’s much-maligned CAP. ‘Short, with a limp, he is one of those useless relics which contemporary society has conveniently relegated to the dustbin of history.’ Come again? I know Mansholt: he’s no limping dwarf but a sturdy giant – nor, I should have thought, does he occupy history’s dustbin. So back to the original, which reads: ‘Pour le compte du bonheur (ce petit homme boiteux relégué parmi les accessoires des temps modernes), il est entré dans la mêlée. à sa manière, sans précautions, en dénonçant le Produit national brut qu’il refuse d’assimiler au niveau de vie’ – ‘For the sake of human happiness (that lame little creature nowadays dismissed as secondary) ...’ The bemused translator, Mr Woodward, has missed the pun involving that crippled aristocrat, le Comte du Bonheur. On page 56, again, he actually reverses Mitterrand’s meaning. ‘Des visages surgissent qui restituent au mien les marques, les blessures que le miroir me dissimule’ becomes ‘... who together erase the passage of time that only a look in the mirror restores’. No less clumsily, he turns ‘une histoire ... que je connais assez pour n’en plus accepter les contrefaçons’ into ‘a history ... that I know well enough so as to no longer be willing to accept any counterfeit versions’. He calls Etienne Mougeotte, of the Europe 1 radio station, a ‘television reporter’, and the Chamber of Deputies ‘the House of Representatives’. He speaks of ‘bloated television reports’ instead of the bloated appearance that cortisone gave Pompidou; and although he partly acquits himself by correcting some of Mitterrand’s faulty dating, his version of the diaries themselves gives little hint of the subtle, sinewy stylist who wrote them.

The book’s second half, excerpted from L’Abeille et l’Architecte, fares rather better with Ms Lane and Ms Hayter. They, too, have their foibles. They confuse the pre-war six-day cycle races, run in the old Vélodrome d’Hiver, with the present-day, outdoor Tour de France. They call cadres (often middle-grade executives or white-collar workers) ‘senior officials’. They translate pétitions du principe (question-begging) as ‘petitions of the principle’, which may be Latin, American or Franglais but is hardly English. They turn Middle-Eastern Phalanges chrétiennes (Falangists) into ‘Christian phalanxes’. On two successive pages, they veer between C and K as the initial letter of ‘Karamanlis’. Heads of State deserve more careful treatment.

Even so, truncated and traduced, something of François Mitterrand emerges from The Wheat and the Chaff. However blurred, he remains quotable. ‘General de Gaulle strikes me as being more remarkable for what he was than for what he did.’ ‘I, who have never been a Gaullist, have always refused to be an anti-Gaullist.’ ‘In the times we are going through, “yes” and “no” are currencies that have been seriously devalued.’ Ten years ahead of events: ‘in Germany, all it would take for a shift of power from the hands of the Socialists to the Christian Democrats would be for the Liberal Party to change camps.’ ‘Writing, like any act, does not forgive.’ In a television debate with Giscard: ‘he looked at me in utter astonishment, shook his head in denial, took a piece of paper from the table, turned it once, then again, as though upset and overwhelmed by the extent of my ignorance ... then quickly changed the subject. Faced with such absolute assurance on his part, I could have doubted the accuracy or validity of my figures if I had not noticed that the piece of paper he had picked was absolutely blank.’ On his own political career: ‘I am incapable of making a move until I have marshaled all the resources of my mind; I am incapable of stopping until I have exhausted all the resources of my will.’ On Brezhnev’s public affability: ‘Concentration and silence lie behind all the noise.’ ‘Nonetheless, I am wary of intuition, the wisdom of globetrotters: True knowledge is sedentary.’ On Henry Kissinger: ‘Mere ability is not sufficient to explain great destinies. The last yards are run alone.’ On Vietnam: ‘The American crime does not excuse the crime in answer to it.’ ‘My freedom has meaning only if I accept the freedom of others.’ ‘Poetry is rigor, the rest is verbiage.’ ‘Suffering – that friend of the strong.’

A touch of self-regard – great shrewdness – a taste for copybook maxims: all these are evident. What the diaries also reveal is Mitterrand’s dedication. He genuinely hates injustice; he follows up individual cases; he rejects tyranny from the Left as well as from the Right. As a Socialist, he’s a Social Democrat – although only the unabridged original contains his most ringing condemnation of the one-party state. The later entries in the journal record in steely detail his estrangement from the French Communists; and his firmness with Georges Marchais is more significant than his occasional obeisance to Karl Marx. Clearly, his self-portrait is intended for public exhibition: ‘concentration and silence’ typify Mitterrand as much as Brezhnev. One of his friends admitted to me recently that not all the President’s good intentions get fulfilled by his entourage. As a Gallic Marcus Aurelius he may not finally earn his Antonine column. But on present evidence he seems more Roman than Florentine, and still ineradicably French.

‘A certain idea of France – the phrase is General de Gaulle’s. I do not like it and reproach myself for having used it in a book of mine. I do not need an “idea” of France. I live France. I have a deep instinctive awareness of France, of physical France, and a passion for her geography, her living body.’ ‘I got used to filling my childhood with the skies of my birthplace, travelers’ skies crossed by migrating birds; with flat fields swept by the swell of waving grass, and the smell of earth at the water’s edge.’ ‘Three months in Paris and I can no longer tell the odors of the forest apart. That is an alarm signal for me.’ He feels no less alarm at the rape of the Morvan woodlands. Perhaps at last, he reflects, the rallying-cry of the ecologists may be ‘shaking the concrete walls of Jericho’.

A sense of the countryside, memories of childhood, accounts of weekends and holidays at his rural retreat in the Landes, south of Bordeaux: these enrich the fabric of Mitterrand’s journal like gold or silver thread. The effect is no doubt deliberate: but the feeling informing it is real. Most Parisians, like most New Yorkers or Londoners, claim roots elsewhere. If nothing else, the country house or cottage is a refuge of the mind. And in France, almost one in every six families has access to an actual résidence seeondaire. As Theodore Zeldin puts it, ‘a Frenchman’s second home is his castle.’

The quip is characteristic of Dr Zeldin’s brisk and knowledgeable canter round the characteristics of ‘the French’. His starting-point is familiar. ‘French people often feel that they are misunderstood by foreigners, that they are insufficiently appreciated, unloved. They are quite right.’ Accordingly, Dr Zeldin’s chapter-headings echo George Mikes: ‘Why it is hard to meet an Average French Person’, ‘How to love them’, ‘How to eat properly’, and so on. The impression of jocularity is reinforced by the French cartoons that stud the text, complete with a biographical appendix on the cartoonists. But those who know Dr Zeldin’s idiosyncratic and revealing works on modern French history will not be surprised to find much solid information behind the badinage. ‘The hidden god of travel,’ he reminds us, ‘is still Karl Baedeker, even though he died in 1859. His guidebooks have set a permanent pattern, making travel essentially a matter of sightseeing, looking at places rather than people.’ The French beret, he recalls, remained Basque until 1923, when it was adopted as a national fashion. In 1932, 23 million were manufactured: but the 1950s saw a change, and today fewer than a million are bought annually by men. ‘Nine out of the 16 French vowels involve strong lip-rounding, compared with only two out of the 20 English vowels. (Germans have five lip-rounding vowels.)’ In Paris, as in England and ancient Rome, ‘the ring gesture – the thumb and forefinger joined to form a circle – means OK, good’: in parts of southern France it can also mean ‘zero, no good’. ‘The Communist Party is the richest political party in France,’ accepts advertising from Coca-Cola and Ford at its annual festival, and itself owns some three hundred firms. Jean Dutourd ‘is a humorist for those French people who dislike the French people, and whose leader, of course, was General de Gaulle.’ ‘Four million [immigrant] residents in France have no real political rights.’ Medically, ‘the most widespread complaint today is tiredness’; the French neglect their hospitals but ‘spend twice as much on drugs as do the British’. ‘There are only two professions who are generally hostile to healers, the clergy and teachers; many doctors are open-minded about them.’ ‘Religion, like fruit or a form of vegetation, has survived where it was most firmly planted during the Counter-Reformation and after ... The Paris region is pagan because it was never properly converted.’

Amid so much disparate data there are bound to be minor queries. Is lettre anglaise the normal term for its English counterpart? Capote anglaise is certainly more common. Louis de Funès, the popular comedian, looks odd as ‘Louis Funes’. ‘Bête noir’ is a woeful misprint. The EEC had ten members, not nine, by the time The French was published. It was Pétain’s wartime état Français, not ‘the Republic’, which betrayed its Jewish citizens. But these are quibbles. More to the point, Dr Zeldin seems to me over-anxious to decry what he calls ‘the bourgeoisie’. France’s old culture, he claims, ‘has proved too élitist for the democratic age’. Bourgeois ideals, he implies, include ‘social aspirations and contempt for one’s “inferiors” ’. ‘Often, but by no means always, workers do not raise their sights above following in the footsteps of those who have made good. Which means that they often bolster up dying values just when the disenchanted bourgeoisie is losing faith.’ ‘Traditional culture is certainly still cherished by those who value respectability.’ ‘Some intellectuals, transformed into experts, find it difficult to accept that everyone has a right to his opinion.’ Statements like this invite the examiner’s command: ‘Discuss.’

So, too, do some of Dr Zeldin’s myth-busting generalisations. He points out, reasonably enough, that most French people really prefer houses to apartments; that ‘the distinctive mark of French cooking is not that it uses garlic, or snails, or frogs, which are regional specialities, nor that it drowns its meat in heavy sauces’; that half of France’s clothes are mass-produced mediocrities; that ‘the French give the impression of being book-lovers because they have a literary class for whom books are almost life itself’; that ‘34 per cent of French homes now have a dog, easily outdistancing England’; that ‘the French system ... aims at a more balanced education’ than the English; that French engineers have turned from theory to practicality; that ‘there is a smaller proportion of young people today than in the Old Régime.’ All these are timely observations. But now and then Dr Zeldin pushes paradox too far. Is it really ‘outdated’ to compare the Communist Party and the Catholic Church? Are there some things ‘which can be said only in French’? (The example quoted is in a direct, rather literal translation, but it still makes sense.) Is the French language now ‘in the same position that patois once stood’? Does ‘il ne saurait être question d’apporter à cette demande une suite favorable’ merely mean ‘no’? Language can also be gesture. Is there, finally, such a thing as ‘the peculiar French way of arguing’, based on ‘rhetoric’ as once taught in schools? Years of living in France tempt me to answer all these questions with a simple Non.

Is there a conclusion to this fascinating quest for ‘the French’? Nothing very neat or lapidary. A few years ago, playing the same game, I suggested distinguishing between ‘the thin France’ of the énarques and ‘the fat France’ of Jean Renoir. Dr Zeldin proposes a distinction between ‘the warm and the cold’: but his final judgment, based on long research and warm affection, is simply that ‘with time, the French are becoming more and more different from each other.’ Now where have we heard that revelation before?