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.)
Altogether, however, the book does not contain earthshaking revelations. Its interest lies less in discoveries than in confirmations. Thus it shows plainly the American domination of the Western alliance. Whatever the Europeans may have thought of Reagan’s intellect, Washington was dictating the timetable and the conclusions in their joint meetings. To quote Attali, “The Europeans, divided, give in always, the British by tradition, the Germans out of necessity” (the lines were written before reunification). The courage of the French, who are depicted as the odd men out in this version, should not be exaggerated either. They could show some resistance on questions such as the American embargo on European shipments for the Siberian gas project, because at that time they were also Reagan’s most faithful allies in the battle that really mattered, the stationing of Euromissiles. When it came to such awkward issues as the supply of defensive weapons to Nicaragua, the French did it for a few months, then gave up because “they did not want to multiply problems with the United States.” Their subsequent subservience could have been deduced from the very start, when they went out of their way to assure Washington that the inclusion of Communist ministers in no way affected French policy.
A second confirmation concerns the French political system. Under the present constitution, made to measure for General de Gaulle, when the French president has a parliamentary majority he is a republican monarch. In theory, it is the prime minister who forms his govern- ment. In practice Mitterrand allowed Pierre Mauroy to choose just one minister, and a junior one at that. Power flowed from the Elysée, with the government carrying out the orders and the Socialist deputies toeing the party line. This absolute power, however, is only political, not economic. Though it was up to Mitterrand to decide in 1983 whether France should float its currency or stay within the European Monetary System, reading between the lines you quickly discover that the progressive platform on which the left won the election did not stand a chance, that capitalist financial orthodoxy was thrust upon the President, who was not aware how much he was a prisoner.
Which brings us to the third point. Reading this book you are barely conscious that you are dealing with a government calling itself socialist. Attali does not convey even the initial enthusiasm when the left took over after twenty-three years of conservative rule. True, from time to time, Mitterrand proclaims, “Only a Leninist solution could impose a real victory against capitalism, and all the reformist solutions are doomed to fail.” Yet these words have no link with his practice and probably little connection with his convictions. You also get Attali describing how, say, the Minister of Defense, Charles Hernu of Greenpeace fame, or the Minister of Finance, Pierre Bérégovoy (the future prime minister who recently committed suicide), were really captives and mouthpieces of their own administration. He does not seem to realize that he too is the victim of the same philosophy when he praises the splendid collaboration of high civil servants with the new masters. But why should the administration, the establishment or big business rebel against the political “masters” who act as if they were servants?
And so when you occasionally stumble on an entry in this diary that sounds leftish–“I dream of a society where work will be so interesting that the principal demand will be to put off the age of retirement,” for example–you look at the date and are not surprised to discover that it says All Fools’ Day, 1983. Come to think of it, maybe our “great men” deserve the Boswells they get.