Mendès

R.W. Johnson

  • Pierre Mendès France by Jean Lacouture, translated by George Holoch
    Holmes & Meier, 486 pp, $34.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 8419 0856 7

It is difficult to communicate to those too young to remember Pierre Mendès France (‘PMF’) the passionate enthusiasm his name generated. For a whole post-war French generation he was the de Gaulle of the Left: a man of total integrity, a beacon of intelligence and republican principle in the darkest hours. Yet he was prime minister for just 245 days. George Holoch’s fine translation of Jean Lacouture’s excellent journalistic biography is thus especially welcome.

Mendès was born of a family of Portuguese Jews (the original name was Mendo Franca) who fled to France from the tortures of the Inquisition. His father, a travelling salesman and shopkeeper, was a fervent admirer of the Commune, who wrote a poem to call down the curses of the common people on Theirs. The great affair of his father’s life – a prosperous textile merchant – was, inevitably, Dreyfus. Mendès père, a secular, radical republican, rallied to Dreyfus as a passionate democrat more than a Jew and, as a furious anti-Prussian, had the honour to serve in the First World War under ... Colonel Alfred Dreyfus. For all his sophistication PMF never strayed far from these roots: he was the classic scion of the progressive republican bourgeoisie.

He was also the classic – perhaps slightly spoilt – Jewish bright boy, top of every class, a furious worker, always dashing off to libraries while his fellow students dawdled. ‘ “You have time to lose.” he would say to us,’ one of his contemporaries recollects: ‘He didn’t.’ It was as a student that Mendès first encountered a force with which he had not had to contend before – the rabid anti-semitism of the French Right. The militant student sections of Action Française and the Camelots du Roi mountede direct and violent action against republicans, socialists and Jews, and even for the studious young Mendès the need to fight this wave took priority over his books. He became the national leader of the Ligue d’Action Universitaire Républicaine et Socialiste, which turned out to be a veritable nursery of the French political élite: alongside Mendès in LAURS were to be found Léo Hamon, Maurice Schuman, Léopold Senghor, Jacques Soustelle and Georges Pompidou (then a militant young socialist). Already Mendès had joined Herriot’s Radicals and was determined on a political future – ‘dreaming of a career like Disraeli’s’.

Even in such a talented generation Mendès was a phenomenon. When he qualified at the age of 19, he was the youngest lawyer in France. His thesis on Poincaré’s fiscal policy immediately became a successful book; and by the time he was 23 he had trained as an Air Force navigator and published a second successful book, on international finance – calling for a united Europe and the creation of a world bank. To the utter stupefaction of his family, he then forsook Paris to become a country lawyer in Louviers in Normandy, simply because he had been promised the Radical nomination in this hopelessly conservative constituency. After overcoming the predictably anti-semitic campaign of the Right, he defeated the entrenched local political boss to become, at 25, the youngest Deputy in France. Within three years he was also Mayor of Louviers and the financial oracle of the Left in parliament. His brilliance was breathtaking, and years later even the brightest civil service technocrats were to agree that in the sheer quality of his intellectual grasp PMF was the ablest man they had ever served.

In parliament Mendès quickly became a leader of the radical young Turks discontented with Herriot’s conservatism, and a keen supporter of the Popular Front. Given the nature of his constituency, this was a bold stand to take and in the 1936 election he faced a furious right-wing campaign against him whose tenor may be judged by the fact that his supporters were reduced to chanting: ‘Long live the Jews!’ He was triumphantly re-elected and was the only Deputy in parliament to vote against French participation in the Berlin Olympics, on the grounds that they were bound to be a Nazi propaganda ramp (even the Communists did not dare thus to offend the patriotic sporting enthusiasms of their voters). Mendès was furiously critical of Blum’s failure to devalue the franc on his accession to power in 1936 – a failure which doomed the Popular Front. In 1937, Blum, acknowledging his error, took over the Ministry of Finance himself and appointed Mendès and his lifelong friend. Georges Boris, as under-secretaries. The sight of three Jews in charge of the French Treasury amply fulfilled the Right’s expectations of socialist government.

With the Government’s collapse and the coming of war Mendès enlisted in the Air Force. Once France had fallen, the Vichy regime pounced on him and sentenced him to jail on a series of trumped-up charges. In a ludicrous trial before the magistrate who had just sentenced de Gaulle to death in absentia, Mendès refused to ‘confess’ and passionately attacked the judge for ‘doing Hitler’s work’, an act which must have required extreme physical bravery. Resourceful as ever. Mendès managed to saw through his cell bars and escaped, cleverly but dangerously, into the Nazi-occupied zone. (While underground and in disguise, he saw the catalogue of the anti-Jewish exhibition organised by Vichy at the Berlitz Palace: it included a wax dummy of himself representing all that was evil in French Jewry.) He eventually escaped to Switzerland (smuggling his wife and children out to America), and, in 1942, finally ended up with de Gaulle in London. De Gaulle was keen to use PMF’s talents in an administrative role, but Mendès, wanting only to fight, joined a Free French bomber squadron as navigator.

As the war progressed, de Gaulle desperately wanted strong French representation at the world financial summit at Bretton Woods. When Gaston Defferre urged the name of Mendès on him, de Gaulle assented with a sigh: ‘Another Jew!’ At Bretton Woods PMF worked with Keynes, a man whose lonely French disciple he had long been, and returned at the Liberation to become de Gaulle’s Economics Minister. Almost immediately he was at odds with Pleven, the Finance Minister, who favoured a far less rigorous anti-inflation policy than PMF was resolved upon. De Gaulle took the politically easier way out and sided with Pleven, whereupon PMF promptly resigned. This was in April 1945. In the years of galloping inflation which followed, PMF’s judgment came to seem less quixotic than it did at the time. Pleven never forgave him for being right and his enmity was to dog PMF down the years. Meanwhile PMF, re-elected Deputy and Mayor of Louviers, went off to lecture at the newly-founded Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), where the young Giscard d’Estaing was among his pupils.

For the next eight years the name of Mendès was repeatedly canvassed for the premiership or Ministry of Finance but to no avail. He had become a loner: his links with the Radicals were tenuous and he seldom attended their congresses, while his post-war refusal to rejoin the Freemasons isolated him from almost all other left-wing politicians. It was clear, too, that he would only accept power if he was free to pursue his own unbending economic policies. He was widely admired, but the party bosses and notables of the Fourth Republic could hardly trust such a man – particularly given the ‘scandal’ of his views on Indochina.

From 1950 on, Mendès endlessly repeated what otherwise only the Communists were willing to say: that France’s war in Indochina was doomed and that the only thing to do was to give in to Ho Chi Minh and make peace. He even dared to suggest that similar sweeping concessions would have to be made in North Africa. To his opponents on the right (including the US Embassy in Paris) this meant that he was no better than a Communist fellow-traveller, while the political leaders of the Centre and Left threw up their hands at such total ‘unrealism’. In 1953 he was summoned to form a government, but created a sensation by spelling out quite bluntly in his nomination speech exactly what he would do in power. The Assembly, used to premiers who wrapped even generalities in smokescreens, panicked and refused him a vote of confidence.

By this time Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber had founded L’Express with the sole aim of bringing PMF to power, and when Dien Bien Phu fell the following year, the crisis of Indochina had become the crisis of the Republic itself. Only in such circumstances could PMF come to power. Knowing his own parliamentary naivety, he recruited the most brilliant young man in the Assembly to help him, François Mitterrand, whom Lacouture describes as ‘a parliamentary zoologist of incomparable skill’. ‘No one,’ Lacouture says, ‘was more knowledgeable about the deputies, their talents and their weaknesses, their past performances, their secret aspirations and their connections.’ Mitterrand was a great strength, but PMF did not entirely trust him.

To gasps of astonishment, PMF announced that he was setting a target of one month to make peace in Indochina: if it was not achieved by then he would resign. This was a clever move. The French Army was on the point of collapse and large-scale desertions were feared. The message was clear: to the Army – hang on for one more month and the horror will stop; to Ho Chi Minh – if you do not negotiate with me now you will have to deal with someone else who will be less sympathetic to your cause. Later the Vietnamese were to claim that the gamble worked only because of the brutal pressure the Chinese were putting on them, but Lacouture shows that it was Molotov who overruled Vietnamese objections and settled all the key issues on terms PMF could sell to his countrymen. The agreement was a triumph. Laos and Cambodia were to become independent non-Communist states and France was to retain control in South Vietnam with elections delayed for two years. Had this agreement been faithfully respected, there would have been a united (and Communist) Vietnam by 1956, no second Vietnam war, and Laos and Cambodia would still be neutral, independent states. Unfortunately Dulles never accepted the agreement, with the results we know: three Communist states and thirty years of awful bloodshed which has still not come to an end. None of this was the fault of PMF – indeed, he constantly warned Dulles of the evil consequences his simple-minded anti-Communism was bound to have.

Eleven days after meeting his deadline on Indochina, PMF announced a scheme for self-government in Tunisia which brought another bitter colonial war to an end. To the fury of the colonial lobby, the decision and the speed with which it was made were wondrously popular in France. Even Le Canard Enchainé admitted, with embarrassment, that this was a government it supported (‘Finally, an Opposition Government’, the headline ran). A month later another issue was settled. The European Defence Community had long engendered bitter political divisions within France. PMF was ambivalent, but decided to let it come to a vote. Parliament threw it out and the European lobby never forgave PMF for the ‘crime of 30 August’. PMF then shot off to the UN, where he called for the neutralisation of Austria, détente between the super-powers and a nuclear test ban. These proposals met with icy hostility from the US Administration – such notions were only to be expected from the crypto-Communist PMF, as the US Embassy in Paris depicted him.

In November the Algerian insurrection began. PMF was appalled and announced that a sweeping programme of reform and a complete halt to the (now revealed) use of torture by the Police were indispensable if a tragedy was to be averted. By now, however, he had too many enemies: not just the colonial lobbies and the Europeans, but the sugar and alcohol interests he had so offended with his public campaign against alcoholism and the symbolic bottle of milk he always placed on the Assembly podium before speaking. He was also feared and hated by the party bosses and dignitaries. He was too direct, too presidential, he bid right over their heads to the party rank and file and the country at large. Indeed, he hardly seemed to care about party at all. The Government was thrown out after just eight months. PMF was never to hold power again.

Mendès now belatedly realised that he needed a party and threw himself into organising the Mendèsiste Radicals, forming the so called Republican Front with Mollet’s Socialists. PMF was by far the most popular man in the country and used his authority principally to get Radicals to stand down in favour of Socialists. The result was that, despite a huge surge of popular support for PMF, almost all the benefit went to Mollet, who used his power to block PMF from the premiership or even a senior ministry. He ended up as minister without portfolio with Mollet as premier, and resigned in disgust when Mollet used his power to step up repression in Algeria. He was vehemently opposed to the Suez expedition – a courageous act given the predictable Israeli fury his position elicited – and then further infuriated the European lobby by voting against the EEC Treaty: as a passionate Anglophile from war-time days, he could not accept Britain’s exclusion. Engulfed by waves of hatred from all directions, he continued to denounce torture in Algeria – the fact that he had been right about so many things seemed only to infuriate his enemies all the more.

Despite his admiration for de Gaulle, PMF was deeply offended by the Fifth Republic, which he saw as a reincarnation of the Second Empire. Swept out of his Louviers seat by the Gaullist wave and expelled from the Radical Party, he nonetheless remained the dominating personality of the Left: the Left’s presidential nomination in 1965 was his for the asking but he spurned any gesture which might legitimate the new presidential regime, so offensive to his republican spirit. In May 1968, PMF alone was ‘with the students’. Speculation that he might somehow return to power did not really cease until the 1974 election made it clear that the leadership of the Left had passed irrevocably to Mitterrand. PMF gave Mitterrand his unconditional support at every turn, but Mitterrand never quite overcame his fear that PMF might somehow return to steal his thunder. Even though the two men fell upon one another like two weeping brothers when Mitterrand finally won power in 1981, PMF waited sadly and in vain for a minor job in the new administration. When he died in 1982 Mitterrand immediately issued a special stamp to commemorate him.

PMF was a man of great achievement, but what made him a truly lasting presence was his shining integrity. He was, too, naive, vain and spoilt, tending to see political opposition as mere personal dislike, and never seeming to realise that his own entirely presidential disposition was more in tune with the Fifth Republic than the Fourth. His refusal to be a wheeler-dealer was admirable, but also blind: politicians who did him favours were outraged by his ‘ingratitude’ when he did no favour back. He never seemed to care about the repercussions of his actions, provided they seemed right to him: he spent a good deal of time in his later years closeted with left-wing Israelis and the PLO, more in the belief that reconciliation was a good thing than in any real hope that he could effect a change in the Middle East. Zionists were infuriated by his refusal to support Israel unconditionally, religious Jews by his happy confession that the only thing that made him feel Jewish was anti-semitism. Above all, his attitude to parties was perverse: in a mass democracy one cannot be politically serious if one spurns party organisation, discovering its importance only after one has become prime minister.

Inevitably, PMF, as the providential man of the Left, was compared with de Gaulle; and as the Fourth Republic neared collapse the country was bound to turn to one or other of them as its saviour. In part, de Gaulle won and PMF lost simply through luck and circumstance, but it also has to be said that de Gaulle was, at bottom, shrewder and had a depth of historical sense which PMF could not equal. This is evident from the exchanges between the two cited by Lacouture. When, in March 1944, PMF asked de Gaulle if future economic planners might not consider the possibility of a united Europe, de Gaulle replied:

Europe! Of course, it has to be set up. With Belgium, Holland and Italy to begin with. Spain will follow when they have got rid of Franco. Germany? There will no longer be one but several Germanies. We shall see ... England? No, I don’t see it participating in a European enterprise.

There, three months before D-Day, was a vision of the Europe that was to unfold over the next thirty years. Neither PMF, nor anyone else, could equal that.

Here, again, is de Gaulle explaining why PMF’s anti-inflation policy of 1945, however technically correct, was historically wrong:

In economics, as in politics or strategy, there does not exist, in my view, any absolute truth. But there are circumstances. The country is sick and wounded. Why throw it into dangerous convulsions when in any event it is going to recover its health?

De Gaulle was right: French post-war economic growth was extremely rapid. If higher inflation made the political cost easier to bear, it was a price well worth paying. Finally, listen to de Gaulle explaining to PMF in 1954, when the latter was at the height of his power, that his premiership could not last: ‘The regime does not permit you to have a government ... No one can act within this system ... From time to time people may very well cheer you as you pass by ... but when you have got rid of what troubles the regime, the regime will get rid of you at the first opportunity.’ Within months it had happened. PMF could not really compete with that superior realpolitik – a fact which he reluctantly acknowledged when he admitted that de Gaulle, whom he endlessly opposed, was also the man he had most admired. Typically, de Gaulle’s comment on Mendès was less direct and more brutal: ‘I respect only those who resist me, but I cannot tolerate them.’

On the other hand, it is also wrong to compare PMF with de Gaulle, the colossus of realpolitik. What made PMF memorable, and makes him so still, is sheer quality of intellect wedded to a crystalline integrity. Through all the many dark hours France had known since the 1920s – Depression, the threat of Fascism, Vichy, Indochina, the horrors of Algeria – the voice of Mendès could be heard, always on the side of humanity, time and again right before his time. He had had to brush aside the most outrageous anti-semitism in order to speak at all, but once he had done so he was ready to act with dispatch and decision and to take whatever the consequences might be. Alongside de Gaulle, with his unmistakable echoes of Bonaparte, PMF sometimes seemed merely the supreme example of a modern technocrat, but he was more than that: the heir of Danton, Victor Hugo and Jaurès, the voice of republican conscience in the 20th century, the voice of the Dreyfusards. While that spirit lives, Mendès will be remembered.