Republican King

Philippe Marlière

  • Mitterrand: A Study in Ambiguity by Philip Short
    Bodley Head, 692 pp, £30.00, November 2013, ISBN 978 1 84792 006 5

AT 8 p.m. on 10 May 1981 François Mitterrand made history. On Antenne 2 – a state-run television channel – his face was broadcast to millions of French households. It took three seconds for the image to appear clearly, but it felt like an eternity. First, a bald head (which, at this stage, could have been mistaken for that of the incumbent, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, also bald), then the eyes and the mouth and, finally, the full portrait. For the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958 the French had elected a socialist president. Had Mitterrand failed on his third attempt at the Elysée, he would have been remembered only as a cabinet minister of the Fourth Republic and the unhappy architect of the Union of the Left; by now, thirty years on, his name would have faded.

On the night, supporters of Giscard d’Estaing were panic-stricken and rumours spread rapidly across France. Michel Poniatowski, a former interior minister, warned that within days Russian tanks would be rolling through the streets of Paris. Pundits predicted that the stock exchange would collapse and leaders of the right lamented the impending collectivisation of the French economy. In the major cities, however, there were scenes reminiscent of the Liberation of 1944, as people danced, sang and kissed, hoping to see large-scale social and economic changes. In Paris, the left presented a unique show of unity: socialists, communists, Trotskyists, republicans and trade unionists marched to the Place de la Bastille to celebrate. As the crowd filled the square, a storm broke and the ‘people of the left’ were drenched. Hours earlier, in his parliamentary constituency of Château-Chinon, the president-elect had declared: ‘The French people have democratically expressed a new political majority which identifies itself with its social majority.’ Mitterrand, the candidate of the left, seemed to acknowledge that he had been elected to implement a socialist programme. In our own era of post-class politics, this may sound grandiloquent and out of place, but at the time it seemed natural.

Many books have been written in French about Mitterrand, but only half a dozen in English; this impressive biography by Philip Short, a BBC correspondent in Paris in the 1980s, is a welcome addition. Short has drawn on an array of official and unofficial sources, including verbatim private conversations between Mitterrand and other foreign leaders (in particular Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl). He also conducted interviews with Mitterrand’s wife, Danielle, and Anne Pingeot, his long-time mistress. The result is a rich, detailed and dependable biography, framed as a ‘study in ambiguity’. Who was Mitterrand? Was he really a man of the left? Did he have any strong beliefs at all? Was he really the most successful left-wing head of state in Western Europe? Did he leave anything resembling a ‘progressive’ legacy from which the French left can draw inspiration?

François Mitterrand was born in 1916 in Jarnac in the Charente, in south-west France. He was the son of a stationmaster, and the grandson of a vinegar maker in the Cognac region. He was raised in a well-off and well-educated Catholic family; they were staunch traditionalists, but not followers of the extremist, anti-Semitic Action Française. The young Mitterrand devoured Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, as well as French translations of Faulkner, Joyce and Hemingway; later, as an adult, taken with the notion of ancestral soil, he sometimes seemed closer, aesthetically and intellectually, to the nationalist writer Maurice Barrès. He cultivated an attachment to ‘la France profonde’ and relished his visits to its towns, villages, churches and cemeteries, where he would stroll for hours at a stretch. He once confessed to Michel Sardou, the reactionary French pop singer, that he was fond of a song of Sardou’s about death, ‘Je ne suis pas mort, je dors.’ Though he professed to be an agnostic, death, the afterlife and the existence of God were metaphysical issues that haunted him, especially when he became critically ill. Short acknowledges Mitterrand’s thoroughly conservative frame of mind, but fails to underline how little it changed even when he became the leader of the Socialist Party and then the president.

When Mitterrand set off for Paris to study at the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques in 1934, he compared himself to Eugène de Rastignac in La Comédie humaine. Rastignac is depicted in Le Père Goriot as an envious social climber, prepared to do anything to achieve his ends: the name is still used in France to describe an arriviste. Mitterrand had always been sure that he would amount to something; as a child, he predicted he would be king of France, or even pope.

During his student years, Mitterrand was briefly a member of the Volontaires Nationaux, an organisation with links to François de la Rocque’s Croix-de-Feu, a movement of the extreme right which had taken part in a notorious march on the National Assembly in 1934 that culminated in a riot and street fighting with anti-fascist activists in the Place de la Concorde. The following year Mitterrand took part in a demonstration organised by the extreme right against what they called the ‘invasion métèque’, the foreign invasion. In 1994, the journalist Pierre Péan brought much of this to light in Une Jeunesse française: François Mitterrand, 1934-47. The president claimed that his early association with the nationalist right was the result of his upbringing in the Charente.

In 1939 Mitterrand joined the infantry and in June 1940 was captured by the Germans. He was held near Kassel in Hesse, and under the influence of the predominantly left-wing and Gaullist prisoners, his politics now shifted to the left. He twice failed to escape, but his third attempt was successful. In December 1941, he returned to France on foot and quickly found work in Vichy, at the heart of the Pétain regime, as a civil servant. The historian Pierre Azéma has described Mitterrand as a Vichysto-résistant: he began by supporting Pétain (and received the Francisque, the regime’s most prestigious decoration), while apparently helping resistance groups at the same time. By the beginning of 1943 he had left Vichy and was actively involved in the resistance. He met De Gaulle, by now the uncontested leader of the Free French Forces, for the first time in Algiers. The two men clashed over Mitterrand’s commitment to a resistance group made up of former POWs (‘Why not a grocers’ contingent,’ De Gaulle asked him, ‘or a charcutiers’?’).

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