Between the elections to the European Parliament in June 1994 and the election of Jacques Chirac to the Presidency of the Fifth Republic on May 7, 1995, the French appeared to be living both in memory and in a mood of evasion. The painful end of François Mitterrand’s second presidential mandate produced a series of uneasy confrontations, both with the recent past—the two seven-year terms of Mitterrand—and with the more distant one—the period when Mitterrand collaborated with the Vichy government. The French press and television have made the most of two fascinating but also rather depressing spectacles: the increasingly bitter duel for the presidency between two former allies, Prime Minister Balladur and former Prime Minister Chirac, and the apparent disintegration of the Socialists after the fall of Michel Rocard, overthrown as leader of the party after his fiasco in the European election.
Then, on April 23 and May 7, the presidential elections brought to power not only Chirac but a new set of leaders who will have to deal with a host of tough issues that have consistently been ignored, and must be addressed if the discontent of a vast part of the citizenry is not to turn into an unmanageable social and political crisis.
The attempts to sum up the Mitterrand era have concentrated at least as much on the man as on his record. Both are full of contradictions. Much of the fascination of Mitterrand for French writers, journalists, and politicians comes from his deliberately cultivated resemblance to many ambitious and complex provincial characters in French novels, from Balzac to Mauriac, and including Barrès and Montherlant. The sinuous course that led him from his early monarchist and reactionary sympathies to a position in the Vichy regime, then into the Resistance, and later to a political career that began on the right and ended on the Socialist left, seems to have been driven, at all times, by a quest for power.
Since 1944 he was also driven by a hostility to General de Gaulle so deep and so constant that he could not even bring himself to mention De Gaulle’s name when he celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Berlin. Much about Mitterrand remains mysterious. The stoic dignity with which he has fought prostate cancer contrasts with his slippery defense of corrupt subordinates and associates and with his sympathy for people as diversely shady as Bernard Tapie, the failed businessman and soccer-club owner turned corrupt politician, and René Bousquet, the Third Republic prefect who, as Vichy’s police chief, ordered the deportation of Jews. Strange behavior for a president whose contempt for money reflects both far right and Socialist anti-capitalism, and who claims many Jewish friends. To one of them, Elie Wiesel, in a book full of banal pieties, Mitterrand confessed that he sees himself as “the graveyard of remembrance.”1 He has, he says, a duty to think about the dead, a noble-sounding thought but one that contrasts with his own lack…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.