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Mr. France

Pierre Mendès France

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

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 integration, cannot forgive Dulles and the French Christian Democrats (the MRP) for what he considers their subsequent anti-Mendès vendetta.

After the rejection of EDC, Mendès found it harder to accomplish anything. Another admirable headlong initiative enlarged the internal autonomy of the Tunisian protectorate, heading off, Lacouture believes, a germinating colonial war there. But when the Algerian rising began on November 1, 1954, he was unable to derail that tragic war. At home he tackled fortresses like the alcohol lobby. A glass of milk became his trademark, and the café-owners’ rabble-rousing defender Pierre Poujade called him “Mendès-Lolo,” baby talk for milk-drinker.1 But he never even reached the project to which he attached most importance and for which his previous career particularly prepared him: more vigorous and more democratically planned economic growth.

Lacouture is a seasoned enough political biographer (he wrote the classic study of De Gaulle, as well as books on Léon Blum, Malraux, Mauriac, Nasser, and Ho Chi Minh) to place the man in his political setting. There are excellent sections on “Mendèsism,” a term that Mendès disliked but that expresses a genuine originality. Mendès went out of his way to show his disdain for the Fourth Republic’s back-room coalition-mongering. He cultivated the image of a man with the capacity to confront hard truths, make courageous choices, and get things done. He called a collection of his speeches “Gouverner, c’est choisir.”

Mendèsism also stood for youth. PMF never entirely lost touch with his own militant student days. At seventeen, wearing a Phrygian cap, he had helped clear the Paris Law Faculty of an Action Française blockade obstructing the classes of a professor favorable to the League of Nations. During the following year, 1925, this exploit made him the national leader of a “republican and socialist” student association. As prime minister, he made youth a central image of his style of government. In opposition, he gravitated ever leftward. In 1960, he supported the young people who broke away from Guy Mollet’s comfortable official socialism and formed the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU). By May 1968, he was the only major political figure capable of opening bridges to militant students. He shocked the entire political class (and aroused the jealousy of François Mitterrand) by appearing at a student rally in the Charléty Stadium on May 27, although he refused the microphone that was offered him.

PMF’s vehicle was not a party (though he briefly tried to transform the vestiges of the ancient Radical party into his personal machine) but the astute use of press and radio. The bright young pragmatic journalists and technocrats who formed his battalions founded the weekly magazine I’Express, now a clone of Time, to promote his cause. One of its cofounders, Françoise Giroud, was among the first women in modern French politics to wield autonomous political power.

As prime minister, Mendès inaugurated Saturday radio appeals to the public over the party leaders’ heads, emulating FDR’s fireside chats. This “great communicator” made conventional party leaders uneasy, in ways that assured both political success and failure. His quality as an outsider probably gave him office in June 1954, just after Dien Bien Phu, when the politicians needed someone to shoulder painful decisions in Indochina (as they needed De Gaulle later in Algeria). But in the Fourth Republic’s multiparty parliamentary system, the party leaders could get rid of him as soon as they no longer needed him.

Mendès France’s government was thrown into a minority soon after it had dealt with the first emergencies, by one of those disparate coalitions that commonly obstructed decisive action in the Fourth Republic. This included the die-hard colonialists who resented loss of Indochina and autonomy in Tunisia; the pro-Europeans who thought he had not tried hard enough to save EDC; defenders of threatened privileges like the alcohol lobby. That was not so surprising. More surprising was Mendès failure to reemerge in some later moment of crisis: during the student risings of May 1968; when De Gaulle left office in April 1969; or in one of the presidential elections of the Fifth Republic. It is one of the puzzles of modern French political life that Pierre Mendès France never got another chance at power.

It is even more puzzling that Pierre Mendès France never adapted to the new political game inaugurated by De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic. His extraparty popularity and his sense of the state would have made him a formidable president. But Mendès opposed the presidential system from the beginning. He never competed actively for that office, though he was only fifty-eight in 1965 when De Gaulle was reelected to a second term, sixty-two in 1969 when Pompidou was elected, and sixty-seven in 1974 when Giscard was elected. Mendès’s young protégé François Mitterrand drove toward the presidency much more skillfully. That was one reason why there was never any warmth between the two, and why Mendès was given no public office after Mitterrand was elected president in 1981. Players of “what if” might imagine the “alternance” of the Fifth Republic from right to left in Mendès’s hands, in 1969 or 1974. Instead, Mendès remained out of phase, a ci-devant of the Fourth Republic that had rejected him, defending parliamentary liberties against a constitutional system that was in fact better suited to his own qualities.

Lacouture leans toward the explanation that Mendès was too scrupulous to exploit a crisis to return to power, unlike De Gaulle in 1958, that “conspirator disguised as a mediator.” Mendès would rather be right than scramble for office. He was right in his first ministerial post, during the Popular Front, but the time was not yet ripe for his version of democratic planning. His austerity program was right when De Gaulle made him minister of economic affairs at the liberation, but it demanded too much belt-tightening in the euphoria of that time. He was right about the colonies and about encouraging a dynamic economy in the 1950s, but entrenched interests blocked him. He was right about the usefulness of carrying on a dialogue with the students in May 1968, but the ensuing law-and-order backlash cost him his parliamentary seat.

There are other possible explanations. Maybe Mendès’s personality made it hard for him to build coalitions. Politicians who become marked as Cassandras and I-told-you-sos do not make easy colleagues and both labels became attached to Mendès. More seriously, the outer man of decision and action seems to have masked a more complex mixture of ambition and hesitation. Vincent Auriol, president of the republic when Mendès tried to form his first ministry in May 1953, recalled that it took him all day to overcome Mendès’s doubts, finally exclaiming in exasperation, “Vous êtes un vélléitaire!” (“You’re a dreamer who won’t act!”)2

Maybe the culprit was anti-Semitism, which Lacouture shows working against Mendès at every step of the way. There is no evidence that Mendès himself thought so, even though he confronted scurrilous whispers in every political campaign, and was imprisoned by Vichy on a trumped-up desertion charge. Descendant of a Marrano family that fled the Portuguese Inquisition in 1684, Mendès assumed the wholly secular sense of Jewish identity normal to long-established middle-class Jewish families in the Third Republic. He never lost his faith that an assimilationist but tolerant France would fully satisfy his sense of belonging. After all, two Jewish prime ministers had preceded him (Léon Blum and René Mayer, not to mention the possible case of Jules Simon in the 1870s), and two were to follow him (Michel Debré and the present incumbent, Laurent Fabius). But, it must be admitted, the presidency is another matter.

Maybe the problem was that Mendès’s general political approach—anticommunist reformism, egalitarianism, but with a strong sense of the state—was under-represented in French governments before the adoption of a presidential system. Its large following in French opinion was difficult to translate into a parliamentary majority. The division of the left has been a major cause of that anomaly. The great political achievement of Mitterrand, now unraveling, is that he created a great catchall party on the left. By joining resolutely with the Communist party, he almost managed to swallow it. Mendès never attempted either part of Mitterrand’s strategy: he tried neither to build a great left party nor to lure the Communists into an alliance from which they could hardly benefit.

Sheer bad luck and bad timing, finally, had something to do with Mendès’s long sojourn in the political wilderness. For when the next crisis boiled up over Algeria in May 1958, General de Gaulle offered himself as an even weightier outsider and extraparty miracle worker. In the crisis after that, when De Gaulle seemed to be on the ropes in the disorders of May–June 1968, Lacouture suggests that the more opportunist Mitterrand rushed forward and spoiled Mendès’s chance.

Mendès and De Gaulle were the two towering figures of postwar French politics. Their names were often linked, and the comparisons and contrasts are still hard to resist. The American press greatly preferred Mendès, whom it called “Mr. France,” and who, it imagined, was going to inject a little Yankee practicality into the maddening labyrinth of Fourth Republic politics. The differences between the hobereau general and the Jewish economist-politician need no comment. But they shared the same passion for France, the same sense of the state, the same freedom from mere consistency, the same flair for dramatic public gesture. They were on convergent courses, steered by lucidity and pragmatism. Both reduced French colonial and supranational commitments in a fashion that actually boosted national self-confidence, and both bet the future on national economic productivity and national defense. (It was Mendès France who took decisive first steps toward the development of the force de frappe.)

As usual, Lacouture has talked with everyone and shows intimate knowledge of the French political world. He makes comparatively little effort to explore personal depths; this is a political biography, after all, a genre at which Lacouture has few peers. He is at his best here: warmly sympathetic toward an admirable person, and sensitive to the twists of system, personality, and chance that kept Pierre Mendès France from realizing PMF’s full possibilities.

  1. 1

    Janet Flanner, Paris Journal, 1944–65 (Atheneum, 1965).

  2. 2

    Vincent Auriol, Journal du septennat, vol. 7, 1953–1954 (Paris: Armand Colin, 1971), p. 220

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