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 …

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  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.