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.

But Giraud was outmaneuvered by De Gaulle, as Mitterrand soon saw; a clandestine Gaullist report of 1943 describes the former Gaullist as “testing the wind.” This was perceptive, for in a letter of November 1943 Mitterrand descries himself as “on the lookout for the future, preparing myself body and soul to play a role in our times.”12 Here, as throughout his life, Mitterrand was acting not from principle but from political instinct. For the same reason he became an enthusiastic supporter of purges after the Liberation—“Heads must roll!” as he put it in September 1944—while maintaining contacts with the Vichyite right that would help him get elected in the department of the Nièvre, against the Gaullists and with the help of the local marquis and a network of prewar right-wingers.13 Indeed, the only consistent political position he has ever held is a deep-seated anti-Gaullism. As a latecomer to the Resistance Mitterrand was always suspect to true Gaullists; moreover, his meetings with De Gaulle, both during the war and after, left him with an abiding sense of humiliation and resentment. As a result much of Mitterrand’s political life seems to have been spent plotting revenge; some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that his willingness to accommodate politicians of the far right in recent years is more than mere electoral calculation—he truly shares with them a common bond of dislike for the man who resisted Pétain, defeated Giraud, and gave away Algeria.14

In describing Mitterrand’s progress through the Thirties and early Forties, Péan’s tone is one of tolerant understanding (indeed the book as a whole scrupulously avoids passing judgment). As the President explained in his television interview, he was a product of his background, born into the provincial bourgeois world of the Cognac region: Catholic, conformist, and blinkered, ignorant of those less fortunate than themselves and resentful of the haute bourgeoisie who made the local brandy (Mitterrand’s family produced vinegar, the region’s other major product). When he tells us that he avoided Charles Maurras’s Action Française movement because the Pope had condemned it in 1926, we believe him. His favorite reading as a student, according to a 1937 survey in the Catholic Revue Montalembertcited by Péan, was Valéry, Mauriac, Montherlant, and Claudel, “especially Le Soulier de Satin.” Indeed, the Mitterrand family itself could have come from a Mauriac novel. It is not necessary wholly to accept Mitterrand’s own defense—that his views were simply those of his milieu (until the age of twenty-seven?)—in order to appreciate the imprint of that world on a young man.

The family and friends of the future President are the third and most controversial theme of Péan’s book. François Mitterrand was well connected; too well connected. The wife of his brother Robert was the niece of Eugène Deloncle, the leader of the Cagoule conspiracy, and Péan lists a half-dozen close friends of the Mitterrand family who were directly or indirectly involved in Cagoulard and other far-right networks before the war. In 1945, short of money, Mitterand turned to Eugène Schueller, the father-in-law of yet another firend and a director of the Oréal cosmetic firm, who promptly offered him the sinecure of editor-in-chief of Votre Beauté, a women’s magazine owned by Oréal (a job he gave up the following year when he was elected to he National Assembly). The unwisdom of this move should have been clear—Schueller was the man who put up the money for the Cagoule a decade earlier, and the connection with him and its attendant rumors plagued Mitterrand for years to come.

Another friend, Jean-Paul Martin, had spent the war years as a senior administrator in the Vichy police, directly responsible for treatment of Jews. Upon his return to France from postwar exile Martin was welcomed by Mitterrand, who took him into his personal cabinet when he was made interior minister in 1954. Many years later, in 1983, President Mitterrand would make Jean-Paul Martin an officer of the Légion d’Honneur. Martin was understandably grateful. Péan records him describing Mitterrand as one of the “two men who counted most in my life.” The other was René Bousquet.

Of all François Mitterrand’s “encumbrances,” Bousquet is the most disturbing. The President knew him from the early postwar years until his death in 1993 and saw him frequently until December 1986, when they met at Martin’s funeral. According to Bousquet’s son Guy, his father, who had a lucrative postwar career in international banking, organized the financing for Mitterrand’s unsuccessful 1965 presidential campaign.15 There is strong suspicion that Mitterrand engineered the delays that prevented Bousquet from coming to trial after his indictment in 1989 for crimes against humanity—Bousquet himself is reported to have said in 1993 (shortly before he was shot at his apartment by a deranged man) that he would be “quite astonished” if there was ever a trial. Even now the President remains loyal to Bousquet’s memory; in an interview with Péan he speaks of him as “a man of exceptional standing… I enjoyed our meetings. He was nothing like the things said about him.”16

The “things said about him” were no idle gossip, however. René Bousquet was the secretary-general of the Vichy police from April 1942 to December 1943. In that capacity he negotiated on July 2, 1942, a deal with the SS General Karl Oberg whereby the French would deliver 20,000 foreign Jews from the occupied zone and 10,000 foreign Jews from the “free” zone for deportation to the East. It was agreed, on Bousquet’s insistence, that French police would conduct the arrests and only foreign Jews would be rounded up. The arrests were made a few days later, and on July 19, 1942, the first trains left France for Auschwitz. Among the deportees were many children; the Germans had not sought to deport families with infants or children under eighteen without parents, but Bousquet insisted on including them, for fear that he would otherwise fail to fill the quota of 10,000 Jews from the unoccupied zone. As Robert Paxton and Michael Marrus make clear, Bousquet’s (and France’s) role was crucial. The Germans did not have the manpower in France to arrest so many Jews themselves, and anyway it was Bousquet’s French police who had the names and addresses of registered foreigners and Jews. As a result, and thanks to President Mitterrand’s “exceptional” friend, Vichy France has the sad honor of being the only country in Europe without a German military presence from which Jews were sent to their death.

René Bousquet was tried in 1949 and acquitted of the charge of damaging the “interests of French national defence.” The court (and the prosecuting counsel) accepted his claim that he had sacrificed foreign Jews to save French Jews. It is possible that Bousquet believed this, and also that he was, as he told friends, “manipulating” Oberg. According to Péan, Bousquet told colleagues that he was staying in office because a successor would be worse. Be that as it may, in April 1943 his position was unambiguous: the French police, he assured Oberg, would continue the struggle against “terrorists, communists, Jews, Gaullists and foreign agents.”17 This remark was not known to the court in 1949, but even if it had been it is not the reference to “Jews” that would have got its author in trouble (opinion at the time was largely unconcerned about crimes specifically against Jews). As it was, Bousquet left the court a free man and went on to renew his many contacts in the business and banking worlds and among the radical political networks of the southwest.

Not until October 1978 did his name come once again to public attention, when L’Expressran an interview with Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Vichy’s commissioner for Jewish Questions from May 1942 to February 1944. Darquier had been condemned to death in absentia in 1947 but lived the rest of his life in Spain under Franco’s protection. In the interview he named Bousquet as the true perpetrator of the anti-Semitic persecutions of which he, Darquier, had been found guilty. Darquier was a tainted source, but within five years Paxton, Marrus, and Serge Klarsfeld had published books showing beyond question the extent of Bousquet’s role in the administration of the Final Solution.18 By the early Eighties Mitterrand could not have been unaware of this, though he claims to have been ignorant at least until Klarsfeld’s discoveries were published.

In his interviews with Péan and on television, Mitterrand had manifest difficulty in condemning Vichy outright. For him it was at worst “essentially” blameworthy. In the light of what we now know, this makes sense. In a very profound way, François Mitterrand is still a sort of Pétainist. His apologies for the regime—that Pétain was a manipulated old man, that circumstances should be taken into account when judging men’s well-intentioned acts, etc.—are the ones made after 1945 by former Vichyites seeking re-integration into public life. But it is his attitude to Bousquet’s crimes, and by extension to the entire Jewish question, that provides the real key. According to Péan, Mitterrand was in fact offered a job in the Commissariat aux Questions Juives in May 1942. He declined the opportunity, but could hardly have been unaware of the work of that commission. In any case anti-Semitism was widespread—the head of Mitterrand’s own agency is quoted by Péan as remarking, in January 1942, that “if the English win, we’ll have the Jews back.” But in a 1994 interview with Péan the President declared, “I don’t think about anti-semitism at Vichy. I knew that there were unfortunately some anti-semites who had taken important positions around the Marshal, but I didn’t follow the legislation of the time or the measures taken…. one didn’t concern oneself with that… It is a problem which never touched me.”19

It is hard to believe that Mitterrand did not “notice” the roundups of July 1942 as he claims, or that he was unconscious of the anti-Jewish legislation, and not only because of his insistence in a different interview with Péan that “the anti-Jewish battles of the Latin Quarter” in the 1930s “revolted me.” The harsh public treatment of Jews in 1942 was a turning-point in public attitudes, provoking a growing distaste for collaboration among many French. The consummately political young Mitterrand, working at the heart of the Vichy administration, would hardly have failed to notice the shift in mood. Furthermore, the anti-Jewish legislation promulgated by Vichy itself, limiting and eventually forbidding Jews access to all official and professional occupations, required public employees to affirm their non-Jewish origin. Mitterrand also made a number of visits to Paris in the later part of 1942; it is unlikely that he did not notice the yellow stars that Jews were obliged by then to wear. Yet, in the television interview intended to allay public misgiving, Mitterrand responded to a question about Vichy’s Statuts des juifs with the following: “You talk of the anti-Jewish laws, it concerned… legislation against foreign Jews of which I knew nothing.”20

That is a crucial and revealing error. François Mitterrand is a lawyer, a man known for his long memory and his deep knowledge of French history. He cannot have been unaware then, or ignorant now, that the Jewish Statutes affected all Jews, French and foreign alike. So why the mistake, the “memory-hole” as Edwy Plenel called it in Le Monde? Because, like his friend Bousquet and many others at the time, Mitterrand instinctively and unthinkingly distinguishes foreign Jews from French ones and finds it somehow comforting to believe that Vichy only persecuted the former. It is not a question of anti-Semitism, though the President might have done better not to insist in his defense (in the same television interview) that some of his best friends were Jews. His statement simply and tellingly confirms that François Mitterrand was no different from the men of Vichy and that in fundamental respects he has not changed. That is why he cannot condemn the regime root and branch, because he would be condemning himself.

The reactions in France to what one editorialist called his “confession” have been instructive. Politicians, like Jack Lang, who attached themselves to Mitterrand’s coattails in 1971 have striven to make the best of it. According to Lang, the television interview was a “moving lesson in courage, intelligence and truth… (he) gave us all the elements that must now close the debate.” Among the older members of the left, and those of the former “new” left who have never really forgiven Mitterrand for his lack of sympathy for the early Algerian revolt and his hijacking of the Socialist movement, there has been bitter recrimination. Daniel Cordier, himself a resister and the biographer of the Resistance leader Jean Moulin, was shocked to learn how little distance Mitterrand had put between himself and his Occupation-era friends: “As a resister and as a citizen, I feel that I have been betrayed.” Some, like Max Gallo, have been honest enough to admit that in embracing Mitterrand “we were blinded by our desire to get into power.” The Socialists as a whole made a Faustian pact with Mitterrand thirty years ago and are now paying the final price.21

The spokesmen of the extreme right have had a field day. Hubert Massol, a Front National leader in the Paris region and the president of a society devoted to the memory of Philippe Pétain, gleefully denounced “a political-media plot to exploit Franco-French hatred for electoral ends on the eve of a presidential election.” The President of the Republic, he declared, is to be praised for his “sense of history” and should be admired for “his courage and loyalty, for refusing in the twilight of his years to renounce the friends and commitments of his youth.”22 It was left to Mitterrand’s political opponent, the Gaullist Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, to remind the nation on national television that, in his view, “Vichy… was a regime that was almost from the outset intrinsically evil.”

Why did he do it? If the President had not cooperated with him, Pierre Péan could not have discovered, or in any case confirmed, some of his most damaging material. It is tempting to speculate that the President was seeking a last, bitter-sweet revenge on his Gaullist enemies and Socialist critics, but even the notoriously Machiavellian Mitterrand probably had something different in view, beyond a natural desire to control the flow of revelations about his own past. By taking responsibility for his own history (“assuming” it, as the French say) and insisting on its commonplace character, Mitterrand is in a curious way acting as a true President of the French nation. He was representative of many in his attitudes before and during the war and he was typical of many in the way he rebuilt his contacts and revised his biography after the war.23 In his insistence on putting his own life in the context of widespread anti-republican tendencies in the France of his youth he is offering France the occasion to see wartime collaboration as understandable and to be at peace with the collective past. He is at once exonerating himself and “banalizing” Vichy. As a contribution to civic peace in France, this gesture is not to be underestimated.

As a contribution to history, however, it is shameful. In February 1944 the Germans published a notorious poster, the “Affiche Rouge.” It featured “mug shots” of ten members of an armed Resistance group, the last one operating in Paris in 1943 until its members were arrested and interrogated by French police before being handed over to the Germans for execution. The group, known by the name of its leader Manouchian, was organized by the Communists and composed of immigrants who had volunteered for the most dangerous missions. Over half of its members were Jews. Of the ten men displayed on the poster, seven were prominently identified by name as “Grzywacz: Polish Jew” or “Boczov: Hungarian Jew” and the text read “Liberators? Liberation by the Army of Crime!” These young men and their relatives had been given refuge in France by the reviled Third Republic. They were preparing to fight and die for the liberation of France while François Mitterrand was writing Pétainist pieces in the Vichy press. They are only a few of the “foreign Jews” to whose fate he was indifferent in 1942 and whose families were being deported to Auschwitz by his friend René Bousquet. Thanks to Pierre Péan and to Mitterrand’s own disingenuous remarks, those “foreign Jews” are the stain that now clings to Mitterrand’s record, and they will not easily be scrubbed away.

This Issue

November 3, 1994