More than three decades after he became the first-ever Socialist president under France’s Fifth Republic and nearly two decades after his death, Francois Mitterrand still fascinates—indeed, captivates—the French as well as politicians and political pundits worldwide.
The longest-serving (14 years) in French history, Mitterrand is almost always ranked with Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle as one of his country’s most consequential leaders.
Much of what many French citizens take for granted and many consider benefits are part of Mitterrand’s legacy: the fifth week of paid holidays, the beginning of the lower working week (cut to 39 hours in 1981 and most recently reduced to 35 hours), increased protection of workers against arbitrary dismissal, and the end of the death penalty.
But to dismiss Mitterrand as simply a French leftist does him a severe injustice, as biographer Phillip Short makes crystal clear in “Mitterrand: A Study in Ambiguity.” In nearly 600 pages, Short not only brings Mitterrand to life but the history of France from the Depression through the Cold War and its aftermath that in which his subject was a major player.
From his days as a university and law school student in the 1930s during which the French Third Republic was crumbling, to World War II (in which Mitterrand was a prisoner-of-war, civil servant within the Vichy puppet regime, and daring underground operative) to the Fourth Republic, Mitterrand served as Cabinet minister for several governments to the modern France that in so many ways he himself helped craft, author Short presents a majestic portrait of both the man and his times.
Nicknamed “the sphinx” in life, Mitterrand is revealed by the author in many fresh ways. But in other ways, the late president of France remains ambiguous.
Having initially pursued a genuinely Socialist agenda after becoming president, an alarmed Mitterrand soon saw the French economy going underwater and performed an about-face that could only be called Olympian. He was soon, as Short writes, “following Thatcherite prescriptions for returning the economy to health” and “spoke with the zeal of a born-again Christian about the need for modernization, conversion of the rust-belt industries, the necessity for profit, the right to become rich ‘provided it is a personal effort [not] by speculation.”
By 1984, he had overseen the reduction of taxes by $80 billion and won over enough of the middle class to win re-election in 1988.
Readers who recall the Cold War will be surprised to learn not only the role France’s Socialist president played but also the cordial relationship he had with Western leaders who were far more conservative. Margaret Thatcher adored Mitterrand and he, in turn, said admiringly of the “Iron Lady:” “She has the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.”
The French President shared with West German (later German) Chancellor Helmut Kohl a love of books and passion for discourse late in the evening interrupted only by alcoholic beverages. Their friendship was pivotal in healing the wounds between their countries.
The Socialist whose 1981 election alarmed the Reagan Administration (the U.S. president waited 48 hours before making the customary congratulatory call) proved a faithful U.S. ally in the Cold War. He and Reagan got on well after Mitterrand revealed to him that DST (French counter-intelligence) had reached out to a Russian double agent (code-named “Farewell”) who was sharing hundreds of documents—including classified papers with annotations from Soviet strongman Leonid Brezhnev.
Reagan, who later called “Farewell” the biggest counterintelligence coup of the Cold War, actually knew about the double agent from the CIA (whose leaders were tipped off by DST). Hollywood pro that he was, he expressed admiration for and amazement to Mitterrand and the Socialist had clearly passed the test of trust with the U.S.
In many ways, Mitterrand, magnetic man of the left, was like Reagan, magnetic man of the right. Both made it to the presidency of their respective countries on their third try and after many had written them off. Both disappointed their admiring bases of support by compromising with the other side, but both were largely forgiven for doing so.
Just as Republicans today almost universally glowingly invoke Reagan’s name and image, so, too, do the French Socialists of today with Mitterrand. In fact, most of the leaders of the Socialist Party are of the “Mitterrand generation.” Current President Francois Hollande got his political start working for Mitterrand in the Elysse Palace during his presidency, and current Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was named by Mitterrand to be France’s youngest-ever prime minister at age 38.
A Survivor Who Made Nixon and Clinton Look Like Amateurs
“Any fool can become prime minister at 50,” declared the young Francois Mitterrand during the uncertain days of the Fourth Republic when he served in several Cabinet posts under different prime ministers, “I will do it at 40.”
He never made it at 40 or 50 or ever because of a number of “affairs” (which the French always used as a euphemism for scandals) in which he was linked or at the center of. They were enough to slow down his momentum and deny him the top job. But Mitterrand survived them all and his resiliency made those of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton seem amateurish by comparison.
The “Leaks Affair,” for example, was a bizarre episode in which transcripts of the French Defense Committee (equivalent to the U.S. National Security Council) ended up in the hands of the Soviet Politburo. Then-Interior Minister Mitterrand was one of those suspected of the leaks until it was revealed the entire affair was a hoax and part of another strange plot to overthrow the Fourth Republic involving others (including then-Paris Chief of Police Jean Baylot).
In 1959, the Fourth Republic had fallen and Charles de Gaulle had come to power with the Fifth Republic, which had a new constitution and a monarch-like presidency that precluded the chances of frequent collapses of government. Relegated to the sidelines, Mitterrand suddenly burst back into the news with reports his car had been fired upon by an unknown rifleman, while driving past “L’Avenue le Observatoire” in Paris.
But the “Observatory Affair” took an unanticipated turn when a man named Robert Pesquet claimed he had cooked up the shooting with Mitterrand’s full knowledge.
“Six hours before the attack, he had sent a letter to himself describing in detail what was to happen,” writes Short, “A bailiff accompanied him to collect it and attested to the time of the postmark.”
Planning a fake assassination attempt would be a death notice for any politician and, amid a barrage of charges of doing precisely that, Mitterrand “broke down and cried like a baby,” according to journalist Jean-Jacques Servan Schreiber.
But it was soon revealed that Pesquet had tried to ensnare other politicians in his scheme. Mitterrand could no longer be accused of trying to initiate the plot himself (although he was apparently the only one to go along with it). Pesquet was later convicted of several crimes and fled to Portugal.
Although hecklers would occasionally shout “Pesquet!” at Mitterrand, only six years after the “Observatory Affair,” he astonished France by getting enough votes in its first popular presidential election to force de Gaulle into a run-off.
God to Mitterrand: Now You Know
In recalling his subject’s political triumphs, biographer Short also vividly illustrates his failures. Mitterrand grossly misjudged the fall of Russia’s Gorbachev and the end of the Cold War, as he did what would happen once the former Yugoslavia came apart. The convivial role of the French government with the genocidal regime in Rwanda is still questioned and debated in the France of today.
Until the recent foibles of President François Hollande and former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss Kahn were reported at length, the private lives of French politicians were off limits to the press. Well-known but never reported was that Mitterrand, married after World War II to wife Danielle and a father of two sons, also had a second family that would live in an apartment funded by the taxpayers when he became president. The much-younger Anne Pingeot and their daughter Marazine finally made the press when they appeared with Mitterrand’s “first family” at his funeral in 1996. Mitterrand also remained a “serial seducer” throughout his adult life. Earlier this year, a 25-year-old Swedish politician announced that Mitterrand was his father from an affair with his journalist mother.
“Ambiguity” is a word that aptly characterizes the private and political lives of Francois Mitterrand. Even his relationship with God remains ambiguous. Raised in a conservative Roman Catholic family, he embraced agnosticism while in a POW camp during World War II. But even as an agnostic, he “searched” – reading the entire Bible, discussing faith with various clerics, and praying (although, he said, he didn’t know to whom). As cancer spread rapidly in his twilight days as president, Mitterrand had decided God existed. Asked by a reporter what God would say when they met, he replied without hesitation: “He’ll say ‘Now you know.’”