Jacques Attali, until June 25 the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development but for years the French President’s personal assistant, cannot be too happy with the reason he is hugging the headlines. As soon as Verbatim 1, his lengthy, detailed record of François Mitterrand’s first five years in office, came out in France, another publisher claimed that forty-three passages had been lifted straight from a work in progress, the conversations of Mitterrand with another of his admirers, Elie Wiesel. To make things worse, these conversations had taken place after the period covered in Attali’s book. The controversy may well be settled in court. Coupled with charges of inaccuracy by some of the actors in this story, it has done little to enhance the author’s reputation as a faithful historian.
Coming from a family of modest Jewish traders in Algeria, Attali is what the French call a bête à concours. This super-champion at passing competitive exams was on Mitterrand’s team in opposition and followed him to the Elysée when the latter became President in 1981. Attali’s job there was never clearly defined. He was a provider of ideas, a Sherpa preparing summit meetings, a kind of superior private secretary. With a room next to the President, often checking records or taking notes, he was probably destined to be the chronicler of the reign. And this is the sense in which the book is disappointing. It is neither a Saint-Simonian canvass of the court nor a thorough analysis of a system. It is a kind of diary that mixes extracts from conversations with comments and documents, whose exactitude is now in doubt.
Naturally, in plowing through nearly a thousand pages of text you do find some gems, like this strange description of Maggie Thatcher by Mitterrand: “She has Stalin’s eyes and the voice of Marilyn Monroe,” Or Attali’s own astonished picture of his first Big Seven summit in Ottawa in 1981, at which Ronald Reagan explained to the assembled leaders the solution to the problems of the Third World through the example of his friend who discovered, while on holiday in Mexico, that what they needed most was water, and who then sent them his old water pipes.
“Suzuki sleeps with an open mouth, Mrs. Thatcher powders her nose, Franccedil;ois Mitterrand signs postcards, Spadolini gossips with his sherpa…Schmidt searches through his files and Trudeau checks carefully whether his red carnation fits well into the buttonhole.”
His European partners clearly did not have a very high opinion of Reagan’s intellectual capacity. “A man without ideas and without culture,” said Helmut Schmidt, then German Chancellor; while Attali, stressing the President’s charm, added that “it is difficult not to perceive the emptiness of his conversation.” In addition to such gossip, historians will pick up bits and pieces about confrontation in the Middle East, notably during the Lebanese crisis; about the extent to which French foreign policy now rests on the Paris-Bonn axis; or about the way in which Mitterrand backed Thatcher in the Falklands crisis, giving her information about French weapons in Argentine hands. (British arms merchants allegedly exploited this by convincing customers not to buy from the French because they give secrets away.)