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Truth and Consequences

Une jeunesse française: François Mitterrand 1934-1947

by Pierre Péan
Fayard, 616 pp., FF 160.00 (paper)

François Mitterrand has been one of the most successful politicians in modern French history. Few people in France today can remember a time when he was not on the political scene: he was first put in charge of a ministry in 1947 and held various high offices throughout the Fourth Republic. During the Fifth Republic he twice ran unsuccessfully for president (in 1965 and 1974) before defeating the incumbent Giscard d’Estaing in 1981. With just eight months left of his second seven-year term, Mitterrand is not only the longest-serving president of the Fifth Republic, but the most enduring French head of state since the Second Empire. Like Louis Napoleon, however, Mitterrand has walked a crooked path. His early ministerial career was marked by rumors of leaked secrets, and by undocumented accusations of shady links to prewar fascist conspirators. He moved unsteadily from one side of the political spectrum to the other, finally establishing himself in 1971 as leader of a Socialist Party which he reinvigorated and led to power a decade later, without ever quite convincing some of its members of his socialist commitments. Widely feared and respected, he has never been an object of trust—in the words of Eric Dupin, a journalist for the French daily Libération, “Son inconstance est sa plus grande constante.”1

Now, at the age of seventy-eight, his past is again in the Parisian limelight. Pierre Péan, a well-known journalist, has written a detailed account of Mitterrand’s life and career from the age of eighteen, when he arrived as a student in Paris, to the time of his earliest ministerial appointment at the young age of thirty. Péan’s is not the first attempt to unravel this story, but it is the only one to have secured Mitterrand’s “full cooperation.” The revelations in Péan’s book have disturbed many, notably within the President’s own political family of the left.

Partly by coincidence, partly to calm the storm, Mitterrand recently gave a long interview to the editor of Le Figaro (himself the author of an earlier biography) and on September 12 allowed the head of France-Télévision, Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, to question him closely for ninety minutes. French journalists characteristically treat the head of state with exaggerated deference, lobbing harmless queries that receive in their turn a regal and dismissive response. The difference on this occasion was striking: hard and intrusive questions were asked about Mitterrand’s health (he has prostate cancer and is in visible decline) and his past. The interviewer did not hesitate to correct and even comment on Mitterrand’s answers, and the President, while still maintaining an aura of dignity, seemed a much-diminished man, complaining at one point of the “formidable campaign” of which he is now a victim.

The context for these developments is the enduring and embittered national debate over Vichy, and more particularly concerning that regime’s role in the destruction of the European Jews.2 The question of French responsibility for crimes committed during the war was raised by the trial of Klaus Barbie in 1987, by the French authorities’ initial reluctance to press charges against Paul Touvier, a leader of the pro-Nazi militia in Lyons who was finally tried in 1994, and by the long delays in processing the charges against René Bousquet, a very senior Vichy police official. In July 1992, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the roundup of Jews by the French police, there was much angry discussion of the President’s refusal to issue an apology on behalf of the French state.

Mitterrand took a strong and, to many of his supporters, surprising position on these matters. Announcing that “one cannot dwell constantly on memories and resentments,” he continued to place flowers on Pétain’s tomb as recently as 1992. He recognized no “French” responsibility for the roundups of Jews and denied more than once that “the Republic” has anything to answer for, a position that he reasserted in his televised interview. From a president of the republic intimately associated with the political left these were already controversial acts and statements (though Mitterrand was by no means alone in believing that it was time for France to let the dead bury the dead). But in the light of Péan’s research, they have come to seem altogether more troubling.

In large matters, the news about Mitterrand’s past is not particularly startling—indeed, Péan clears him of some of the more extreme rumors; notably stories that circulated in the Fifties of Mitterrand’s direct involvement in a right-wing conspiracy of 1937, when the secret network of officers and politicians called Cagoulards plotted to overthrow the Republic. Moreover, much of the story Péan tells was already known in outline—the basic facts are all in a book by Catherine Nay published in 1984.3 In 1934 François Mitterrand left his family home in the Charente department of western France to study law in Paris. Coming from a conservative background he was attracted to the political right, like many others in his generation. He was conscripted for national service in 1938, served as a non-commissioned officer during the Battle of France, was taken prisoner and sent to Germany. After two unsuccessful attempts he escaped from his POW camp in December 1941 and made his way back to France, finding employment at Vichy. From May 1942 until January 1943 he worked in a government agency handling the rehabilitation of ex-prisoners, performing his duties so well that Marshal Pétain would award him a Francisque, the Vichy service medal, the following year.

By the spring of 1943, however, he became increasingly involved in Resistance circles; by the end of that year the Gestapo were after him and he was prominent enough to have come to the notice of Resistance leaders in London and Algiers. At the Liberation he had a briefly important role in the transitional administration, largely because of his influence as (by then) the acknowledged leader of the organizations of ex-prisoners of war.4 He was elected to the first Assembly of the Fourth Republic in November 1946, and became minister for Ex-servicemen in January 1947. On the face of it an unremarkable trajectory, except for the unusual rapidity of Mitterrand’s postwar rise (but many young men rose quickly in those confused days). The devil, of course, is in the details.

Péan’s discoveries fall into three distinct parts. The first concerns Mitterrand’s prewar politics. A photograph, reproduced in the book, shows Mitterrand at a demonstration of right-wing students in February 1935. According to contemporary newspapers, the students (from the law faculty of the University of Paris) were demonstrating against “foreigners,” brandishing signs reading “A bas les métèques! Contre l’invasion métèque! La France aux Français!5 Mitterrand apparently has no detailed recollection of the nature of this demonstration, though confronted with the photograph he concedes he was there. Others, however, recall it as having been aggressively and unmistakably xenophobic, directed at Jewish students of Polish origin then studying in Paris.6

The presence of the young Mitterrand is not surprising. In the previous year he had joined the Volontaires Nationaux, the youth division of Colonel de la Rocque’s Croix de Feu, the leading far-right mass movement of the mid-Thirties. Mitterrand insists that he remained only briefly in the orbit of the Croix de Feu, but his views seem not to have diverged from it very much. On April 10, 1937, he contributed an article to L’Écho de Paris, a very conservative paper sympathetic to Mussolini and Franco. Bemoaning the “decline” of the Left Bank in recent years, he wrote: “The Latin Quarter is so discordant a mix of colors and sounds that one has the impression of rediscovering that Tower of Babel in which we were loath to believe.”7 The following year Mitterrand took part in a Mardi Gras march organized by Royalist circles.

In the light of his prewar views, the future President’s wartime activities as reconstructed by Péan seem perfectly consistent. In an article published in December 1942 in a Pétainist propaganda sheet, Mitterrand described his feelings and those of his fellow-prisoners as they were being shipped off to Germany in 1940. “We,” he reflects, “were the heirs to one hundred and fifty years of mistakes.”8 There was nothing out of the ordinary in this sentiment at the time, except that Mitterrand is invoking not only the late, unlamented Third Republic, responsible for the disaster that had befallen France and its soldiers, but also (“one hundred and fifty years of mistakes”) the entire political heritage of 1789.

If François Mitterrand was not a royalist in 1942, he was most certainly a Pétainist; or, in view of his skepticism about the commitment of some of his hero’s colleagues, what historians call a “maréchalist.”9 That might account for his willingness to work in the documentation section of the Légion des Combattants et des Volontaires de la Révolution Nationale , a job found for him by a family friend in the Vichy government shortly after his return. The Légion, created by Xavier Vallat, Vichy’s first commissioner for Jewish Questions, was responsible for producing and disseminating propaganda for the regime, much of it anti-Jewish. One of its slogans in 1942 was “Contre la lèpre juive, pour la pureté française” (“Against the Jewish plague, for French purity”). It is unlikely that an employee in the documentation department was unaware of this. Membership in the Légion was of course voluntary.

The Légion was the precursor of the Milice, Vichy’s notorious paramilitary enforcement agency. Mitterrand could not have anticipated this, nor can he be held responsible for its evolution after his departure, though in March 1942 he was privately regretting the lack of fanaticism on the part of the partisans of the National Revolution. But in the light of later developments his choice of words in a letter dated April 22, 1942, was unfortunate: “We need to organize in France militias (milices) which would allow us to await the outcome of the Russo-German conflict without fear of its consequences…. Laval is certainly determined to keep us out of trouble. His method seems bad? Do we really know what it is? If it allows us to get through, it’s good.”10

Since Mitterrand was writing privately to a close friend, there is no reason to suppose that he was adopting such views as a “front.” He seems to have remained a sincere and convinced supporter of Pétain throughout his second assignment, in the ex-prisoners’ rehabilitation agency.11 When he did, finally, move toward resistance in the spring of 1943 it was in line with a growing change of mood at Vichy—and perhaps also with the growing recognition that the Allies were likely to win the war. Like many Vichyites-turned-resisters Mitterrand was initially a supporter of General Henri Giraud, the Vichy officer who offered his services to the Allies in Algeria. Giraud represented a “soft landing-ground” for former supporters of the Marshal, since his emphasis on fighting the Germans did not exclude a certain sympathy for the frustrated aspirations of the National Revolution.

  1. 1

    According to Peter Péan, in the book reviewed here, as early as 1941 a fellow prisoner-of-war wrote of the future president, “Like Vautrin, François Mitterrand is the man of multiple incarnations.” See p. 151. 

  2. 2

    The standard text is the book by Robert Paxton and Michael Marrus, Vichy France and the Jews (Basic Books, 1981). See also Richard Bernstein, “French Collaborators: The New Debate,” The New York Review, June 25, 1992, and my review of Susan Zuccotti, The Holocaust, the French and the Jews (“Betrayal in France”), The New York Review, August 12, 1993. 

  3. 3

    Catherine Nay, Le Noir et le Rouge (Paris: Grasset, 1984). 

  4. 4

    Mitterrand maneuvered ruthlessly and with great skill to defeat Gaullists and Communists alike for control of the Mouvement National des Prisonniers de Guerre et Déportés, thereby establishing for himself a political constituency of two million potential voters desperately in need of respect and support and grateful for his concern. His first book was devoted to the subject ( Les Prisonniers de guerre devant la politique, 1945). The way in which Mitterrand rose to power within the prisoners’ organization and then used that power to advance his own career eerily prefigured the manner in which he took over the Socialist Party in 1971. 

  5. 5

    The term “métèque” is derived from the Greek word for an outsider who has moved to Athens, a resident alien without rights. It was widely used in the inter-war years, always with highly pejorative and insulting connotations. Its vernacular British equivalent is “wog.” 

  6. 6

    See the testimony of Gilles Martinet, a Socialist colleague of Mitterrand, also born in 1916, who took part in Parisian student battles of the time, but on the other side. Le Monde, September 10, 1994. 

  7. 7

    “…le Quartier Latin est ce complexe de couleurs et de sons si désaccordés qu’on a l’impression de retrouver cette tour de Babel à laquelle nous ne voulions pas croire.” Quoted by Péan, p. 75. 

  8. 8

    “Le Pèlerinage à Thuringe,” in France, revue de l’Etat Nouveau, quoted by Péan on page 122. The existence of this article had already been noted by Catherine Nay and by Richard Bernstein in The New York Review. Péan shows that contributions from others to this paper were often dripping with anti-Semitic venom. As Mitterrand acknowledged to Péan, he should have paid more attention before publishing in it. 

  9. 9

    “The Marshall is almost alone and those who believe in his ideas are far from him”—thus Mitterrand in a letter dated March 1942. See Péan, p. 178. According to Péan, Mitterrand was “suffused with the sacrificial attitude preached by Marshal Pétain.” See p. 154. 

  10. 10

    “Il faudrait qu’en France on puisse organiser des milices qui nous permettraient d’attendre la fin de la lutte germano-russe sans crainte de ses conséquences…. Laval est sûrement décidé de nous tirer d’affaire. Sa méthode paraît mauvaise? Savons-nous vraiment ce qu’elle est? Si elle nous permet de durer, ella sera bonne.” Quoted by Péan, pp. 178-179. 

  11. 11

    In Ma Part de Vérité, published in 1969, Mitterrand wrote, “Back in France I became a resister, with no wrenching difficulty ( sans problème déchirant ).” Quoted by Péan, p. 171. 

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