The longest reign in the history of the French Republic is coming to an end, possibly a premature one, with a sense of drama. Rumor has it–but a rumor that reaches the respectable columns of Le Monde–that a spreading cancer may prevent President François Mitterrand from completing his second seven-year term, scheduled to end next May. The rumor has precipitated the presidential race, particularly the jockeying for position on the right, where the leader of the neo-Gaullist party, Jacques Chirac, lagging in opinion polls, must now do his best to catch up with his party colleague, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. The racing metaphor is actually too mild, since the contest is going to be bloody, with daggers drawn, despite the two men’s “thirty years of friendship.” Indeed, this competition on the right, involving other participants as well, offers the only chance for the left, discredited by years of broken promises. The only serious left candidate, Jacques Delors, will not say, whether he’s going to run until the close of his term as president of the European Commission at the end of this year.

But this twilight of a reign now has another element of drama because of a book with a striking photograph on its cover, taken in October 1942, showing a handsome Mitterrand, barely 26 at the time, together with the white-haired Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of Vichy France. The title, A French Youth, is reminiscent of Sartre’s short story “The Childhood of a Leader.” The book deals with the making of the future President, from his arrival in Paris as a student in 1934 to his direct entry into party politics in 1947. The author, Pierre Péan, has studied documents and interviewed an impressive number of witnesses, including the President himself, who does not deny the solidity of the facts. With its emphasis on Mitterrand’s reactionary background, however, and on his Vichy connections, the book has provoked unease and controversy among Socialists. Elsewhere, it has revived Mitterrand’s ambiguous reputation as a Machiavellian, a florentin. Finally, it has given rise to a broader debate about the man and his role in French history.

Of Mitterrand’s past the book teaches us both little and a lot. It is, for instance, not news that he comes from a conservative Catholic family and that this colored his early outlook. But Péan proves, with print and pictures, that as a student in Paris he joined one of the anti-democratic ligues, admittedly picking not the worst among them (he was a member of the youth movement linked with the Croix de Feu of Col. François de La Roque), that he attended xenophobic rallies and participated in protests against a law professor who dared to take the side of Ethiopia against Mussolini. Similarly, we knew that after escaping from a P.O.W. camp in Germany, Mitterrand served in the Vichy administration and even obtained Pétain’s highest distinction, a francisque, though by that time he already had one foot in the Resistance. But the book also documents that he backed Vichy together with his reactionary friends from Paris; that, while not pro-German, they believed in Pétain and his “national revolution”; that they really changed sides only in 1943 when, the Allies having landed in North Africa and the Germans having occupied southern France, it was impossible to kid anybody about Vichy’s “independence.”

This, it may be argued, was not so bad. Mitterrand’s line today–which he articulated in an unprecedented, painful and moving one-and-a-half-hour interview on French television–is to say, Considering my background, I did rather well. Indeed, he did. And once he chose the Resistance, he played a brave and prominent part, which opened the way to his political career. But the real trouble lies in his reluctance to disown plainly his Pétainist past, his indulgence for friends who did not make the “good choice,” his tendency to turn a blind eye to some of the crimes committed at the time. What has shocked people most in the current controversy is that in the 1980s their Socialist President used to receive for dinner René Bousquet. Bousquet was that head of the Vichy police who zealously helped the Germans deport Jews from France, was freed by a French court, indicted again for “crimes against humankind” and murdered in June of last year by a madman before he could be brought to trial [see Singer, “Death of a Collaborator,” July 19, 1993]. Mitterrand’s plea in his TV interview that he merely had relations with a man who had been exonerated by the courts is technically correct but unconvincing. His attitude suggests that his admitted reluctance to stage show trials of the French participants in Nazi crimes sprang not only from his desire to spare France’s nomenklatura, the high civil service, but also, in part, from the President’s vision of the country’s and his own past.

The debate about the essential nature of Vichy and the shades within that regime is still far from over, even if more than half a century has elapsed. Yet does the book offer anything that gives us insight into the man after 1947, who is, in the end, the figure that matters historically? It certainly confirms that, from the start, Mitterrand was a man of cliques and complicated networks, dependent more on personal connections than political parties, and faithful to pals rather than principles. He was also driven by a tremendous, though ill-defined, ambition. In the first postwar period that ambition found expression in a rather narrowly political quest for office; Mitterrand was a permanent participant in the government merry-go-round of the Fourth Republic. In 1958, with the Algiers coup and de Gaulle’s return to office, a qualitative change took place. Mitterrand began to aspire to something higher. He forged a strategy–the left can win only if it includes the Communists and if the latter accept the role of junior partner–and stuck to it through twenty-three years of ups and downs in opposition. Finally, to achieve his presidential objective, he had to be converted to socialism–he joined the Socialist Party and at once became its leader in 1971″make a deal with the Communists and emerge as the champion of a united left and as a vague preacher of “a break with capitalism.”

Personally, I do not think it was all just cant and camouflage. You don’t repeat slogans for years without being affected (kneel and pray, Pascal wrote, and you will believe). Mitterrand probably once envisioned himself depicted in history books as a socialist reformer. But it was skin-deep. By 1983, when it became clear that the experiment was unsuccessful, what remained for him was to play a role, any role, even if it was in total contradiction with the one he had promised to perform. His claim to fame, or to shame, is not that he invented a model of radical social transformation in France; it is that he “normalized” France by destroying the belief in the very possibility of such change.

After 1983 the Socialists imposed on French society the straitjacket of financial orthodoxy, They did their best to persuade the people that there was nothing beyond the capitalist horizon. In the changed atmosphere it was easy for Mitterrand to introduce consensus politics: the acceptance that the left can come into office as well as the right because it will not change anything fundamental. For years it used to be assumed that the arrival of the left into office in France (as opposed to Britain or Germany) would mean a major upheaval. By depriving the French left-for how long is another matter-of its heritage, namely the conviction that society, and therefore life, can be radically altered by political action, Mitterrand gained his laurels.

Now he often talks as if unaware of the shift. Answering the editor of the conservative Le Figaro, Mitterrand expressed one regret: that some Socialists have been involved in cases of corruption. He thus seemed to confuse cause and effect. The left got elected promising to eliminate “the corrupting power of money.” Once in office, its government knelt before the golden calf. The numerous financial scandals, the suicide of former Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy, are merely the byproducts of this conversion.

There is something pathetic about the emaciated Mitterrand, clearly struggling for survival but also perfectly lucid and a political animal to the last, brushing up his past, doing what Proust called la toilette du souvenir. He must do so because the part he ultimately assumed does not fit so well either. Consensus politics is not too successful in France. The right is too dominant, the left too shattered, the Socialist Party too weak to appear as a serious electoral alternative. And to make things worse for a man relying so much on patronage, those doing best on the left are not necessarily his protégés.

Nor is this surprising. In those distant days while in opposition Mitterrand and his followers talked of changing society, whereas their critics in the Socialist Party did not hide the fact that they themselves were merely reformist managers of capitalism. Once in office, Mitterrand and his governments carried out the policy of their former critics, though this does not mean that they developed a particular fondness for them. As regards his old rival, Michel Rocard, Mitterrand probably never forgave him for trying to oust him in the late 1970s, and may well have played a part in Rocard’s recent elimination as presidential candidate of the Socialist Party: As far as Delors is concerned, Mitterrand neither wishes to block his candidacy nor probably could do so if he wished. He is no longer the master of the game, not even in his own party.

Yet there is a deeper sense in which it is the end of a reign. If the left is to be resurrected in France in the not too distant future, it will have to break with what has been called Mitterrandisme. Not with the idea of unity, which he once personified, nor of radical change, which he once tried to symbolize, but with his method of government through personal connections and his system of rule with all power flowing from above. It should not be forgotten that Mitterrand, having bitterly criticized de Gaulle’s personal rule, inherited his presidential powers with relish.

On the other hand, if the left wants to be relevant once again, it must start from the bottom, from the grass roots. It will have to give a new meaning to the forgotten slogans of self-management, of autogestion. With chronic unemployment now the dominant preoccupation,-anyone interested in doing something about it will have to look beyond the confines of existing society. In other words, the left will have to reclaim its heritage and convince the people anew that fate can be altered by political action–that, yes, it is possible to changer la vie. If the left manages to do that, the chapter devoted to François Mitterrand’s “achievement” as the destroyer of dreams will become marginal even in the textbooks of capitalist historians. As for socialist writers, his reign will figure prominently in their stories under the heading “What Is Not to Be Done.”

Mitterrand’s is a passionate, moving desire, until the very last, to make an imprint, leave a trace. He is bound to leave one mark–on the Parisian landscape. French presidents, unlike their American counterparts, are keen on monumental reminders, and Mitterrand, with his “great works,” is a record breaker. Watching the elegant lines of the Arche beyond the Arc de Triomphe, the new pyramid of the Louvre, the original structure for the Institute of the Arab World or the towers of the new National Library, generations will think of the Mitterrand years. Yet one example from the past reminds us that such architectural landmarks are not enough: that of Napoleon the Third. His prefect of the Seine, the baron Georges Haussmann, reshaped the French capital, opened up vast avenues (convenient against barricades) and gave his name to the houses with wrought-iron balconies that still dominate Paris. But Haussmann’s master, partly thanks to the polemical genius of Victor Hugo, will always be known, by contrast with his uncle, as Napoléon le Petit. Although he has no famous uncle, and in spite of his long reign, undoubted political skills and frantic efforts to paint a portrait for posterity, Mitterrand will go down in history with a similar nickname.