How Wily Mitterrand Transformed France

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 of interest to both of us, I did not fully appreciate the anecdotal value of the encounter until Mitterrand became the Socialist president of the French Republic, thus breaking the right’s more than forty-five-year hold on power. After he completed his second seven-year term as president, he became the third-longest-serving head of the French state.4 The true scope of his achievement has been difficult to assess, both because of the partisan controversies that dogged his astonishingly successful political career and because his life was coextensive with, and inevitably calls for judgments on, the greater part of the history of France’s tumultuous twentieth century. A period, it must be said, that seems at times a funhouse mirror image of the century that preceded it.5


François Mitterrand was born on October 26, 1916, in Jarnac, a town then of about 4,500 some fifty miles north of Bordeaux, situated on the right bank of the Charente, the fifth of eight children of Joseph and Yvonne Mitterrand. “My childhood, which was happy,” he was to tell Elie Wiesel, “has lit up my life. My parents were attentive and open-minded.”6 They were also in some respects unusual. Joseph was a classicist who read both Latin and Greek; Yvonne read widely and communicated her love of books to François.

The family was well-to-do, solidly Catholic, and pious. The father worked for the railroad and by the time Mitterrand was born had become the stationmaster in neighboring Angoulême. The maternal grandfather, Papa Jules, owned a prosperous vinegar-manufacturing business. While the family didn’t support the fervently anti-Semitic Action Française, regarding it as anticlerical, the Mitterrands were “markedly right-wing,” Short writes, “but more monarchist than reactionary, nostalgic for the Empire yet open-minded by the standards of the time.” Indeed, Yvonne noted in her diary disgust at the vilification of Captain Dreyfus, remarking that Christ and the Virgin Mary were both Jews.

In 1919, Mitterrand’s father had an opportunity to take a higher position with the railroad in Paris but Papa Jules needed a successor and asked him to enter the family business. He agreed, and the family moved to Jarnac, which became its home. It is where Mitterrand was buried, in the family crypt. Burial in Jarnac solved a delicate problem. Otherwise, who would ultimately rest at his side, Danielle, his official wife, or Anne Pingeot, the unofficial wife and mother of his beloved daughter Mazarine?7

From the age of ten to eighteen, when he obtained the baccalaureate, Mitterrand attended school in Angoulême. His strengths lay in history, geography, and French, and he was a good debater. Math and the sciences didn’t interest him, and he seemed unable to learn English, a handicap he would never overcome. The next step was Paris. Mitterrand became a boarder at a hostel operated by Marianist fathers at 104 rue de Vaugirard, ten minutes on foot from the Sorbonne. “104” was famous for its clientele, drawn from the provincial bourgeoisie, of solidly Catholic and right-wing students, and the esprit de corps it developed among them. Mitterrand matriculated at the law faculty, and at the Sorbonne to study literature, and enrolled in a one-year course preparing candidates for the entrance examination to the political sciences institute colloquially known then and now as Sciences Po. In 1938, he obtained law and literature diplomas, as well as the diploma from Sciences Po, two with the mention bien, which was a respectable but not brilliant result.

Most of Mitterrand’s right-wing friendships, as well as right-wing activities, during his student days, including involvement in two ugly racist campaigns and riots, were connected one way or another to 104. As Short very sensibly puts it, his ties to right-wingers “were not fortuitous. François Mitterrand was not a member of the Cagoule or of Action Française, nor was he anti-Black or anti-Jewish. But his milieu and his family connections meant he had friends who were and he could live with that.” The friendships formed at 104, however, would turn into a source of embarrassment when Mitterrand became a left-wing politician and ultimately the leader of the left.


Military service was compulsory in France between the two wars. Knowing that he would be called up, Mitterrand applied in 1938 to the Saumur military academy, from which he would have graduated as a second lieutenant. Young bourgeois university graduates did not expect to serve in the enlisted ranks. He failed the entrance examination—a fact he would keep secret—and was drafted into the infantry as a private but, by the time fighting began in May 1940, when the Germans invaded, he had been promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Mitterrand participated in several engagements with sufficient valor to be awarded the Croix de Guerre with a silver star. On June 14, he was wounded and evacuated to a hospital. A week later, along with the rest of the staff and patients of the hospital, he was taken prisoner, and wound up in a Stalag, a prisoners’ camp for enlisted men, outside of Ziegenhain, in the Rhineland Palatinate. A year and a half later, on December 10, 1941, his third attempt to escape succeeded, and he made his way to the Free Zone of France. He allowed himself a brief period for recuperation and a reunion with his father and some of his siblings, following which he left for Vichy in search of a job.

Why Vichy? Mitterrand has given a somewhat lame explanation: Jarnac was “impossible” and Paris was difficult “for the same reasons.” What reasons? He doesn’t say, but Paris may have indeed been difficult for an escaped prisoner of war. He had no money and no position; in Vichy he had friends, “principally officers—five or six persons who know others—established in this little town that had become the center of gravity of France and where government offices were from then on located. They said: ‘Come—we’ll try to find you something.’ So I showed up in Vichy.”8

In short order the “something” turned out to be work as deputy head of press relations in charge of the Free Zone for the Vichy government’s commissariat for prisoners of war. It was a providential assignment, because it eventually made it possible for Mitterrand to help form a resistance network for former prisoners and a power base for himself. But it was a very slow evolution, for the movement and for Mitterrand personally.

Short has concluded—in my opinion correctly, exhibiting as he does throughout his book a fine understanding of French society—that there were two reasons for Mitterrand’s initially lukewarm attitude toward the resistance, reflected in the glacierlike movement of his change of allegiances. First, a belief—prevalent in his social class and among his friends in Vichy—that Pétain was the only rational choice for France, since he was preserving the continuity of the state, and second, if one looked at the resistance, the absence at the time of a real organization and real activity. Therefore, to go underground “was to take a leap into the unknown,” which Mitterrand was not yet prepared to make.

Consciousness of the rapidly worsening and soon-to-be-desperate situation of French Jews, and empathy with them, might have accelerated the process. But Mitterrand did not mince words about this, making it clear that the increasingly blatant role of Vichy in the persecution of Jews did not have any effect on his position. So it was that Mitterrand led a split existence. He worked efficiently in his Vichy position, and dabbled, with increasing commitment, in work for the resistance. His efforts on behalf of Vichy were appreciated at the highest level: in the spring of 1943, he was awarded the francisque, a decoration bestowed by Pétain for services to his “National Revolution.” Other resistance figures of note also received the francisque, including Maurice Couve de Murville, who later served as de Gaulle’s prime minister. In all such cases, including Mitterrand’s, it was with the approval of the general’s staff in London. Being able to sport the francisque in encounters with Vichy police and the Gestapo provided an excellent cover.

Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
François Mitterrand, Paris, 1967

Once Mitterrand made the leap—Short situates that moment in the summer of 1943—he plunged into resistance headfirst, using the nom de guerre Morland and displaying, as he did in the army, imperturbable physical courage and disregard of danger. Also, for the first time he gave proof of unstoppable ambition, and mastery of political hand-to-hand combat when called for to put him at the top of an organization. He was one of a small handful of resistance leaders flown out of the Occupied Zone to London and then to Algiers to meet de Gaulle.

Repeated and malicious attempts have been made to question the bona fides of Mitterrand’s status as a resistant. They should have been put to rest by the Ordre Général of March 1, 1945, bestowing on Mitterrand, with the rank of lieutenant colonel in the French Forces of the Interior, a second Croix de Guerre with a Silver Star for heroic activity in the resistance. When the general organized the provisional government to take charge in Paris until he and the members of his National Liberation Committee arrived from Algiers, he named Mitterrand secretary-general for prisoners of war and deportees. But he did not include him in the first government he formed shortly after his arrival. Mitterrand was deeply disappointed. As it happened, his encounter with de Gaulle in Algiers had not left a happy memory. The seeds of his anti-Gaullism had been sown.


Mitterrand was elected to the Fourth Republic’s first National Assembly in November 1946, from Nièvre, a department with which he had no prior connection but would remain identified for the rest of his political career. He was the candidate of the right. He had no choice: there was no other circumscription available to him, and in Nièvre, his opponent being a Communist, his only chance of winning was as the candidate of a coalition of centrist and right-wing parties. One might ask why, in such case, he had felt it necessary to run. The answer is obvious: nowhere except in politics could he find room for his outsize ambition, and his work with prisoners of war had given him a taste for both politics and power.9

Luck was with him. Paul Ramadier, the new republic’s first prime minister, offered him the post of minister for war veterans. He was thirty, the youngest member of a French cabinet since the Revolution, 150 years earlier. Altogether, Mitterrand was to serve as a minister in ten governments. Twice he held a very high position: he was minister of the interior under Pierre Mendès-France and minister of justice under Guy Mollet. The stain left on Mitterrand by his tenure as minister of justice proved indelible. His sixteen months in office, beginning at the end of January 1956, coincided with the period of the most brutal repression of the Algerian insurgency. Torture and retaliatory executions by the French military became commonplace; military tribunals were substituted for civilian courts; in October 1956, the French military forced down a Moroccan plane carrying Ahmed Ben Bella and three other FLN leaders, in flagrant violation of international law.

Mendès-France had previously resigned from the government in protest against its policies. Alain Savary, a Socialist minister responsible for Moroccan and Tunisian affairs, resigned over the treatment of Ben Bella. Mitterrand, whose duty it was to uphold republican legality, stayed and remained silent. Short thinks that the only explanation for what he did at that time was that he had decided to subordinate everything to the hope of becoming the next prime minister—a goal that eluded him. President René Coty stubbornly failed to invite him to form a government each time the opportunity presented itself after Mollet’s government fell. Then, on June 1, 1958, General de Gaulle took power as the last prime minister of the Fourth Republic.


On May 10, 1981, having defeated Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (to whom he had lost narrowly in 1974) in the presidential election with 51.76 percent of the vote to Giscard’s 48.24, Mitterrand opened a remarkable chapter of French history: fourteen years of rule by a Socialist president, after a period of forty-five years during which the left had, except for very brief periods, been at best at the fringes of power.10 A part of the story was that, for the first time since 1946, the Communist Party supported the government coalition, and four Communists were appointed to minor ministries. The US openly disapproved, and the inclusion of Communists in the government added to the panic that sent members of French haute bourgeoisie to emigrate to New York City, London, and Geneva; but Mitterrand’s strategy worked. Short accurately describes his intention: “The longer he could hold Georges Marchais’s party in a poisoned embrace, the more the strength would be sucked out of it.”

Mitterrand was a president possessing the broad authority conferred on his office by the constitution of the Fifth Republic, custom-tailored for General de Gaulle. Not even “cohabitation” with an opposition prime minister (Jacques Chirac from 1986 to 1988 and Édouard Balladur from 1993 to 1995) could entirely blunt his powers, for under the constitution he retained considerable if undefined “reserved” command of defense and foreign affairs, kept exclusive control of France’s nuclear weapons, was able dissolve parliament, and could withhold his signature from decrees promulgated by the government, without which they weren’t valid.

Mitterrand did not, however, take power unencumbered. Weighing on him were the “101 Propositions,” readopted at an extraordinary congress of the Socialist Party in Créteil in January 1981, which called for such measures as the nationalization of credit as well as of nine large industrial groups, along with a variety of policies, including an increase in the minimum wage; a lowering of the retirement age and the number of hours worked in the week; and, in 1982, the creation of 210,000 new jobs in the public sector, most of which were meant to stimulate the economy by increasing consumption. The Propositions also mandated—a ticking bomb—the creation of “grand unified, secular, public service of national education,” a formula soon taken to be a reopening of the catastrophically divisive nineteenth-century conflicts over the role of the Catholic Church in education.11

Of course, keeping faith with the Propositions required legislative action by the National Assembly. Any doubt about the government’s ability to have laws passed disappeared once the results of the election of June 21, 1981, were announced. It was a huge victory. The Communist Party and the parties of the right and center-right were clobbered, while the Socialists had an absolute majority. That evening, at the Élysée, Mitterrand remarked, tongue in cheek, to the assembled ministers and party potentates, “Take a good look at this Chamber. You will not see one like that again, not in your lifetime.” He had found his Chambre Introuvable, his unimaginable chamber, and one cannot believe that he did not at some level shrink from its implications.12 And the National Assembly did, indeed, set about making sure that the promises to the party faithful were kept.

Whether or not the attempt to stimulate the economy through spending and increased consumption was fundamentally wrongheaded, as the opposition, conservative economists, and a number of Mitterrand’s own ministers and advisers believed (Jacques Delors and Michel Rocard among them), it proved unsustainable in the face of austerity measures being adopted in order to cope with the economic crisis and inflation of the 1980s by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, as well as the successive runs on the French franc that were draining the reserves of the Banque de France. The debate is reminiscent of the one spurred by the austerity programs adopted, at the insistence of the IMF and creditor nations, by Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain after 2008; but even Keynesians would agree that stimulus should be temporary rather than, like the French measures, permanent, and that the nationalizations were harmful, if only because of the strongly adverse effect they had on French business confidence.

Mitterrand’s nerve failed: he did not follow the advice of his Socialist advisers and lead France along the path to autarchy (by leaving the European Monetary System, which would have been analogous to the exit from the euro that many have recently counseled for Greece, as well as imposing import restriction and capital movement controls). Instead, he “paused” much of the stimulus program and took measures to curb consumption. Gradually, the French economy recovered—as did the economies of France’s major partners. While the Socialist Party lost the election that followed, and Mitterrand’s own popularity suffered badly, the ensuing era of cohabitation has resulted in a major advance by French society toward greater political stability.

Another promise of the Propositions that was not kept was the reform of education, limiting the power of Catholic schools. A law implementing it—the loi Savary, named for the hapless minister of education who shepherded it through the National Assembly—set off protests throughout France in May 1984 of a magnitude not seen since the student strikes and riots of May 1968. Mitterrand let the initiative die, and Savary, feeling that he had been thrown to the dogs, resigned.

On balance, his presidency transformed France for the better. He improved French-German relations, took part in the creation of the euro, and counteracted the Socialist allergy to a robust defense policy. In domestic affairs he modernized the Socialist Party, showing it was possible for the left and the right to coexist peacefully. In all likelihood Mitterrand has received too much credit for diminishing the power of the Communists—the decline of Western European Communist parties in the closing decades of the twentieth century has been a generalized phenomenon—and too much blame for the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National. It too has been mirrored by the widespread resurgence of the European far right, and conditions unrelated to Mitterrand’s electoral maneuvers.

He was, however, guilty of a great imprudence by not only concealing the diagnosis he received a few months after his election to the first term of his presidency that he had cancer of the prostate that had spread significantly into his bones, but also, far more grave, remaining in office through the fourteen years of his two mandates, even though during the last two years of his second term he was a very sick man. All the while, he and his doctors kept his condition secret. The stains on his presidency—putting aside the unsteady stewardship of the economy during his first two years in office—by now are either mostly forgotten or have lost their claim on our attention (e.g., the debacle in which a Greenpeace ship was blown up by French agents in Auckland harbor in 1985, and the questionable business involvements of some members of his entourage).

But Mitterrand’s relationships with Vichy figures continue to shock. The most unsavory was with René Bousquet, Vichy’s chief of police, who presided over the deportation of Jews and particularly over the cruel Vel d’Hiv roundup of Jews in 1942. Some of these episodes are explained although not justified by Mitterrand’s preternatural loyalty to friends, his family background, and the twists and turns of his early career. The claim Mitterrand made in his conversations with Elie Wiesel of not having been sufficiently aware of Bousquet’s record is hardly credible. But the apologia he offered when pressed by Wiesel would be difficult to improve on:

Over the course of the years, I have freed myself from the constraints of my milieu, my upbringing, and some of its prejudices. I prefer having followed that road, distancing myself progressively from the conservative environment which was mine in order to move toward the ideals of the Left, rather than the opposite road, which many of my contemporaries took, especially during the years just before and during World War II.13
  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. 

  4. 4

    Napoleon III was elected president in 1848 and held power as such until his coup d’état in December 1851, which put him on the throne in 1852. He reigned as Emperor of the French until he was taken prisoner at the Battle of Sedan in September 1870 and subsequently deposed on March 1, 1871, by the National Assembly. Louis Philippe ascended the throne as King of the French in July 1830, and was overthrown on February 24, 1848, by the revolution that had broken out some days earlier. 

  5. 5

    In a political and cultural sense, the history of nineteenth-century France begins with the Second Restoration of the Bourbons after the defeat of Napoleon I on June 18, 1815, at Waterloo, and ends with the assassination of the great socialist leader and pacifist Jean Jaurès by an extreme right-wing nationalist on July 31, 1914, a few days before the outbreak of World War I. Consider the following: after Waterloo, France needed to recover from the internecine violence of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that had left it impoverished and bled white. Tranquility was moreover the purpose of the system of political checks and balances that the victorious Great Powers were imposing on Europe.

    Instead, the next ninety-nine years of French history were punctuated by two revolutions (1830 and 1848), a coup d’état that actually took place and two that fizzled (General Boulanger and Paul Déroulède), the brutal repressions of two insurrections (Journées de Juin 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871), the catastrophic war against Prussia, major financial scandals (the Panama Canal Company scandal alone wiped out the savings of hundreds of thousands of small investors), and the Dreyfus Affair, the aftershocks of which continued long after the highest court of France finally, in 1906, found Captain Alfred Dreyfus innocent of the charge of treason that had been brought against him.

    Like Napoleon’s wars, World War I left France exhausted and once more bled white. While it had lost appetite for military adventures (in fact disgust with war and defeatism laid the ground for the rout of the French army in May and June 1940, the Armistice of June 22, 1940, and the Pétain regime), domestic peace did not follow. On the contrary, l’entre deux guerres politics were marred by virulent partisan strife, outbreaks of violence linked to far right and extremist movements (l’Action Française, La Cagoule, and the Camelots du Roi), the rise of militant communism, and industrial strife.

    Under Pierre Laval, head of the Vichy government from April 1942 to August 1944, Pétainism turned into outright collaboration with Germany. There was strife between adherents of General de Gaulle and those of General Giraud, and occasional armed conflict between Gaullist and Communist resistance movements. On the heels of the Liberation came l’épuration —bringing of French collaborators to justice—which in too many cases turned into personal vendettas and brutal settlements of accounts.

    The Fourth Republic was established in October 1946, after de Gaulle left office as president of the Third Republic because he was unwilling to accept the “exclusive regime of parties.” During the Fourth Republic’s eleven years, eleven months, and twenty-seven days of existence, twenty-one governments came into office, two of which lasted only one day. On June 1, 1958, as the result of a coup d’état mounted by his adherents and the French army command in Algeria, General de Gaulle became the last prime minister of the Fourth Republic. The Fifth Republic was established on October 5, 1958, and two and a half months later de Gaulle was elected president by indirect suffrage.

    To round out the turbulent image, France fought two catastrophic wars during the Fourth Republic, in Indochina and Algeria. The first was ended by Mendès-France through the Geneva Accords signed on July 1954, and the second by de Gaulle through the Evian Accords, signed on March 18, 1962, more than three years after the Fourth Republic had disappeared. The last years of the Algerian war were marked by a crescendo of terrorist attacks in Algeria and France committed by Algerian insurgents ( FLN ) and right-wing French extremists opposing Algerian independence. 

  6. 6

    François Mitterrand and Elie Wiesel, Mémoire à deux voix (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1995), p. 11. 

  7. 7

    Mitterrand married Danielle Gouze, eight years younger than he, with whom he had three sons (one died in infancy), in 1945. As she discovered almost immediately, he was a serial adulterer. Notwithstanding his infidelities, their marriage continued as a solid personal and political partnership and ended only with Mitterrand’s death. In 1963, he started an affair with Anne Pingeot, twenty-seven years younger than he, with whom he had a daughter, Mazarine, born in 1974. Anne was his last great love.

    The facts of Mitterrand’s relations with Danielle—eventually she took a lover nine years her junior—and Mitterrand’s separate household with Anne Pingeot were a secret known to le tout Paris but never breathed of in the press or in political debates. Mazarine’s existence was enveloped in even greater discretion, until a photograph of her leaving a restaurant with her father, taken with a telescope lens, was published in Paris Match in 1994. The first time Danielle, Anne, and Mazarine appeared together in public was at Mitterrand’s funeral mass in Jarnac, along with his two sons and grandchildren. 

  8. 8

    François Mitterrand, Mémoires Interrompus, entretiens avec Georges-Marc Benamou (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1996), p. 68. 

  9. 9

    Some years later, he was to mock teasingly, in conversation with the journalist Gonzague Saint Bris, “the impoverishment of Julien Sorel’s ambition.” 

  10. 10

    France had not had a truly left-wing government since the Popular Front, which took power, with Léon Blum as prime minister, on June 5, 1936. Blum resigned on June 21, 1937. Prior to that, the Cartel des Gauches, a loose alliance of left-wing and left-of-center parties, was in power from June 1924 to July 1926. 

  11. 11

    Franz-Olivier Giesbert, Le Président (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1990), pp. 71–72. 

  12. 12

    Chambre Introuvable refers to the overwhelmingly reactionary National Assembly elected at start of the Second Restoration of the Bourbons. The laws it voted for, to restore the privileges of the aristocracy, and the attitudes they engendered did not reflect the natural inclinations of Louis XVIII, which were conciliatory. They started the restored monarchy on a collision course that led to the Revolution of July 1830. 

  13. 13

    Mémoire à deux voix, pp. 110–111.