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.

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