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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in