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.