Mr. France

Pierre Mendès France

by Jean Lacouture, translated by George Holoch
Holmes and Meier, 486 pp., $34.50

Pierre Mend̬s France
Pierre Mend̬s France; drawing by David Levine

Pierre Mendès France is remembered as the one bright light in the otherwise lack-luster French Fourth Republic, which lasted from 1946 to 1958. Jean Lacouture’s sympathetic and richly informed biography supports that reputation. Its mood is one of admiration tinged with regret. Lacouture presents Mendès France as a man of rare qualities who never quite managed to convert them into sustained political power or lasting achievement.

In a political career that spanned half a century, from his election to the French Chamber of Deputies in 1932 at the age of twenty-five until his death in 1982, Pierre Mendès France held the highest political office for only 245 days. He was French prime minister from June 17, 1954, to February 23, 1955. He had earlier served as a precocious undersecretary of finance in Léon Blum’s second ministry in 1938, and as De Gaulle’s minister of economic affairs from September 1944 to April 1945. Contrary to all expectation, he never held major office again after 1955. Pierre Mendès France shaped the exercise of power in France mostly by his formidable presence in the wings.

Mendès France’s ministry in 1954 and 1955 was a calculated effort to shake the semiparalyzed Fourth Republic into action. The bright young men and women around him called him PMF, after FDR (JFK was still the junior senator from Massachusetts). He was a political “star,” who drew his legitimacy not from party bossism or parliamentary agility but from moral and intellectual force. PMF chose his ministers for their personal characters rather than to buy support from party leaders. He announced that he would not count the votes of the Communist party in his majority. Like Babe Ruth pointing his bat at the left field fence over which he proposed to hit the next pitch, he gave himself a public deadline of one month to extricate France from the morass of the Indochina war.

Despite the negotiating advantage that this deadline gave Ho Chi Minh, Mendès managed to get the Russians and the Chinese to help obtain a partition settlement that Lacouture (differing vigorously with John Foster Dulles on this and other points) considers better than the situation warranted just after the humiliation of the French Army at Dien Bien Phu.

Next, Mendès took on another major logjam: the long-procrastinated vote to ratify French participation in the European Defense Community (EDC). Failing to get the other European partners to accept a weakening of EDC’s provisions for supranational control, Mendès forced the matter to a quick decision in the Chamber of Deputies. In the absence of any guidance from PMF, enough other opponents of German rearmament joined the Communists and Gaullists to block a majority for EDC. The French and American partisans of European integration were outraged at what they regarded as Mendès cavalier treatment of their work. Lacouture, always more interested in third world issues than in European…

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