How Wily Mitterrand Transformed France

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Collection Otzenberg/Magnum Photos
François Mitterrand, Hossegor, France, 1967

I had the good fortune to be presented to François Mitterrand, the subject of Philip Short’s engrossing, authoritative, and fair biography, which is chock-full of previously unavailable information, sometime in the fall of 1973, at a small lunch given in New York City by the French consul general.1 At first I thought he looked like a priest out of a film Luis Buñuel had yet to make. Later I realized that in fact the resemblance was with Vautrin—the escaped convict who dominates three of Balzac’s greatest novels, Père Goriot, Lost Illusions, and Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans, and finishes his career as Louis Philippe’s prefect of police—when, disguised as priest, he first meets Lucien de Rubempré.2

Mitterrand had, in addition to a clerical aspect, what I imagined might have been Vautrin’s physical magnetism and his mellifluous voice, and he held me under his spell while we talked about Algeria, a country with which I was involved at the time. Not even his charm, however, could make me keep my eyes off his truly terrible teeth. Short reports that they were reshaped by a dental surgeon before the 1981 presidential election. He won the election. His media adviser, Jacques Séguéla, told him: “You’ll never be elected President of the Republic with teeth like that.”

The impression Mitterrand made on me did not contradict the opinion I had formed on the basis of what I then knew: that he was a powerful and wily politician, capable of provoking strong hatreds as well as allegiances. A couple of years before, he had been elected secretary-general of the Socialist Party. He was also—and had been for a long time—the deputy to the National Assembly from Nièvre, a region in central France. I was aware of murky periods in his past, principally the events commonly referred to as l’Affaire de l’Observatoire, an attempt on his life that many claimed he had brazenly staged in order to gain media attention and sympathy at a time when his political career had stalled.

One of the reasons for the stall was Mitterrand’s vehement opposition to the new constitution that Charles de Gaulle had pushed through after he returned to power in 1958, and the highly authoritarian character of the Gaullist government.3 Mitterrand’s most spectacular accomplishment had come in 1965, when he managed something that everyone around me—I was living in France—thought impossible. Running as the candidate of the parties of the Left (including the Communist Party) against de Gaulle, who was seeking a second seven-year term, he first forced the general into a run-off, and then lost to him 44.8 percent to 55.2—a decisive defeat, but one that established him as a serious presidential contender.

Although I had been, as one might expect, delighted to have met Mitterrand and had a real conversation with him on a subject …

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  1. 1

    Short, a veteran former foreign correspondent for the British press, is the author of well-received biographies of Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, among other books, and has lived for many years in France. 

  2. 2

    I was amused to find in Short’s biography, in the form of a quotation from an article that appeared in a prisoners’ newspaper published in the Stalag in Germany where Mitterrand was a POW, that I am not alone in having seen a connection between Mitterrand and Balzac’s prodigious villain:

    François Mitterrand, like Vautrin, is a man of multiple identities…and I suspect him to be in possession of the dreadful secret of a split personality.
     

  3. 3

    Mitterrand argued that position in Le Coup d’état permanent, published in 1964. According to Short, he considered it his best book.