Mitterrand: A Study in Ambiguity 
by Philip Short.
Bodley Head, 692 pp., £30, November 2013, 978 1 84792 006 5
Show More
Show More

AT 8 p.m.​ on 10 May 1981 François Mitterrand made history. On Antenne 2 – a state-run television channel – his face was broadcast to millions of French households. It took three seconds for the image to appear clearly, but it felt like an eternity. First, a bald head (which, at this stage, could have been mistaken for that of the incumbent, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, also bald), then the eyes and the mouth and, finally, the full portrait. For the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958 the French had elected a socialist president. Had Mitterrand failed on his third attempt at the Elysée, he would have been remembered only as a cabinet minister of the Fourth Republic and the unhappy architect of the Union of the Left; by now, thirty years on, his name would have faded.

On the night, supporters of Giscard d’Estaing were panic-stricken and rumours spread rapidly across France. Michel Poniatowski, a former interior minister, warned that within days Russian tanks would be rolling through the streets of Paris. Pundits predicted that the stock exchange would collapse and leaders of the right lamented the impending collectivisation of the French economy. In the major cities, however, there were scenes reminiscent of the Liberation of 1944, as people danced, sang and kissed, hoping to see large-scale social and economic changes. In Paris, the left presented a unique show of unity: socialists, communists, Trotskyists, republicans and trade unionists marched to the Place de la Bastille to celebrate. As the crowd filled the square, a storm broke and the ‘people of the left’ were drenched. Hours earlier, in his parliamentary constituency of Château-Chinon, the president-elect had declared: ‘The French people have democratically expressed a new political majority which identifies itself with its social majority.’ Mitterrand, the candidate of the left, seemed to acknowledge that he had been elected to implement a socialist programme. In our own era of post-class politics, this may sound grandiloquent and out of place, but at the time it seemed natural.

Many books have been written in French about Mitterrand, but only half a dozen in English; this impressive biography by Philip Short, a BBC correspondent in Paris in the 1980s, is a welcome addition. Short has drawn on an array of official and unofficial sources, including verbatim private conversations between Mitterrand and other foreign leaders (in particular Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl). He also conducted interviews with Mitterrand’s wife, Danielle, and Anne Pingeot, his long-time mistress. The result is a rich, detailed and dependable biography, framed as a ‘study in ambiguity’. Who was Mitterrand? Was he really a man of the left? Did he have any strong beliefs at all? Was he really the most successful left-wing head of state in Western Europe? Did he leave anything resembling a ‘progressive’ legacy from which the French left can draw inspiration?

François Mitterrand was born in 1916 in Jarnac in the Charente, in south-west France. He was the son of a stationmaster, and the grandson of a vinegar maker in the Cognac region. He was raised in a well-off and well-educated Catholic family; they were staunch traditionalists, but not followers of the extremist, anti-Semitic Action Française. The young Mitterrand devoured Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, as well as French translations of Faulkner, Joyce and Hemingway; later, as an adult, taken with the notion of ancestral soil, he sometimes seemed closer, aesthetically and intellectually, to the nationalist writer Maurice Barrès. He cultivated an attachment to ‘la France profonde’ and relished his visits to its towns, villages, churches and cemeteries, where he would stroll for hours at a stretch. He once confessed to Michel Sardou, the reactionary French pop singer, that he was fond of a song of Sardou’s about death, ‘Je ne suis pas mort, je dors.’ Though he professed to be an agnostic, death, the afterlife and the existence of God were metaphysical issues that haunted him, especially when he became critically ill. Short acknowledges Mitterrand’s thoroughly conservative frame of mind, but fails to underline how little it changed even when he became the leader of the Socialist Party and then the president.

When Mitterrand set off for Paris to study at the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques in 1934, he compared himself to Eugène de Rastignac in La Comédie humaine. Rastignac is depicted in Le Père Goriot as an envious social climber, prepared to do anything to achieve his ends: the name is still used in France to describe an arriviste. Mitterrand had always been sure that he would amount to something; as a child, he predicted he would be king of France, or even pope.

During his student years, Mitterrand was briefly a member of the Volontaires Nationaux, an organisation with links to François de la Rocque’s Croix-de-Feu, a movement of the extreme right which had taken part in a notorious march on the National Assembly in 1934 that culminated in a riot and street fighting with anti-fascist activists in the Place de la Concorde. The following year Mitterrand took part in a demonstration organised by the extreme right against what they called the ‘invasion métèque’, the foreign invasion. In 1994, the journalist Pierre Péan brought much of this to light in Une Jeunesse française: François Mitterrand, 1934-47. The president claimed that his early association with the nationalist right was the result of his upbringing in the Charente.

In 1939 Mitterrand joined the infantry and in June 1940 was captured by the Germans. He was held near Kassel in Hesse, and under the influence of the predominantly left-wing and Gaullist prisoners, his politics now shifted to the left. He twice failed to escape, but his third attempt was successful. In December 1941, he returned to France on foot and quickly found work in Vichy, at the heart of the Pétain regime, as a civil servant. The historian Pierre Azéma has described Mitterrand as a Vichysto-résistant: he began by supporting Pétain (and received the Francisque, the regime’s most prestigious decoration), while apparently helping resistance groups at the same time. By the beginning of 1943 he had left Vichy and was actively involved in the resistance. He met De Gaulle, by now the uncontested leader of the Free French Forces, for the first time in Algiers. The two men clashed over Mitterrand’s commitment to a resistance group made up of former POWs (‘Why not a grocers’ contingent,’ De Gaulle asked him, ‘or a charcutiers’?’).

In the second postwar parliamentary elections, in November 1946, Mitterrand won a seat in the Nièvre for the Rassemblement des Gauches Républicaines, an assortment of centrist notables who had been involved in the resistance and were fiercely anti-communist. He was appointed overseas minister in 1950, and subsequently became an interior minister in Pierre Mendès-France’s government (1954-55). Here he played a conservative hand, siding with the pieds-noirs and insisting that ‘Algeria is France’. As justice minister (1956-57) in Guy Mollet’s government, he extended martial law in Algeria and supported Mollet’s repressive policy, which was to involve France in a long and bloody war. Mitterrand also advised the president, René Coty, to reject appeals for clemency in the great majority of cases involving indigenous Algerians who had been condemned to death.

In October 1959, a year after the founding of the Fifth Republic, the first Mitterrand scandal emerged. In the Jardins de l’Observatoire near the Latin Quarter, Mitterrand – by now a senator – had escaped an assassin’s bullet, he announced, by diving behind a hedge. Sceptics suspected that he had staged the incident to boost his public profile. With the return of De Gaulle to the presidency the previous year, Mitterrand’s political career had nose-dived and he seemed destined to occupy a series of minor roles in the opposition. In the opening pages of his book, Short gives a breathless account of the episode, which reads like a crime thriller. Although the circumstances were never fully clarified, the scandal was such that in 1965, when Mitterrand ran for the presidency, De Gaulle’s entourage advised him to discredit the challenger by invoking the Observatory Affair. De Gaulle argued that it would be wrong ‘to demean the office of the presidency’; one day, he said, Mitterrand might get the job. Shortly before Mitterrand’s death, Robert Pesquet, a former member of the OAS – a far right terrorist organisation in Algeria – revealed that the incident was indeed staged and that he had been the fake assassin. The affair cast an unflattering light on Mitterrand’s character: he was secretive, reckless and ready to consort with shady operators. It was embarrassing and damaging, but he survived.

In retirement since 1946, De Gaulle had been highly critical of the institutions of the Fourth Republic and the ‘excessive powers’ it conferred on parliament and the political parties. Now, at the height of the Algerian crisis, the whole political class – except for Mitterrand and a few others – begged him to take the helm again. His return meant that Mitterrand was faced with a politician he admired, but instinctively wanted to oppose. He was mesmerised by De Gaulle’s authority, but failed to emulate it and could only look on as the general dominated the French political scene until his resignation in 1969.

Mitterrand was not a Gaullist, and was not going to prosper politically under De Gaulle. Each man got under the other’s skin as both were domineering and ambitious in their different ways. De Gaulle was brisk and had a military manner, used to being obeyed; Mitterrand was self-confident and haughty. In the early 1990s, I interviewed a former resistance member who had known Mitterrand during the war and found him ‘terribly cold and distant’ – ‘never a true socialist’. When the two men met again in Lille in the early 1970s, Mitterrand had just taken over the leadership of the new Socialist Party. The rank-and-file activist went to greet his old comrade: ‘Hello François, do you remember me? We both fought in the resistance. As we are both socialists now, do you mind if I use the tu form to address you?’ Mitterrand assumed his sphinx-like expression and replied: ‘Si vous voulez, monsieur.’

Both Mitterrand and De Gaulle believed they were born to lead. De Gaulle once said that he had a ‘certain idea of France’, and Mitterrand undoubtedly had a certain idea of himself. Both had conservative and Catholic backgrounds, but De Gaulle lived simply and his private life was boringly transparent: he was married to Yvonne for fifty years, and no one in France ever dreamed that he might have had an extra-marital affair. Auntie Yvonne, too, was a conservative Catholic who campaigned against prostitution and pornography, and even tried to persuade her husband to outlaw miniskirts. Mitterrand’s private life was rather more colourful. He was married to Danielle, who came from a left-wing family which had helped the resistance during the war. She was well to the left of her husband: she publicly supported Castro’s Cuba, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Polisario Front in Western Sahara, as well as the Mexican Zapatistas and the rights of the Tibetan people. She voted ‘no’ in the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution on the grounds that it favoured economic competition and profitability at the expense of the poor.

Mitterrand was a serial adulterer. His wife knew about her husband’s infidelities and came to accept them. In 1957, he met Anne Pingeot, a curator at the Louvre, with whom he had a daughter, Mazarine, in 1974. As Short reveals, Danielle too had a long-term lover, Jean Belenci, which is something of a scoop: the French media have never ventured onto this territory. In the 1970s Belenci, a PE teacher whom she’d met in the late 1950s, lived with the Mitterrands in Paris (he used to go and fetch the croissants every morning for the whole family). After he became president, Mitterrand moved into the Elysée with Anne Pingeot and their daughter (although both were housed and guarded at the taxpayer’s expense, the issue was never picked up by the press), while Danielle stayed with Jean in the family home. Short argues that this arrangement came about because of Mitterrand’s ‘supremely egoistic’ personal behaviour.

By the 1960s, Mitterrand, who could not count on the support of a major party, had realised how crucial presidential elections were in the new political framework. Under the Fifth Republic, to exercise real power meant winning the race to the Elysée. His long journey from right to left continued. He headed the Fédération de la Gauche Démocratique et Socialiste after the 1965 presidential election, which led to a regrouping of the parties of the non-communist left. Benefitting from the decline of Guy Mollet’s Socialist Party (PS) and the reluctance of the Communist Party (PCF) to participate in a presidential election it described as a ‘plebiscite’ for De Gaulle, Mitterrand ran as the ‘candidate of the left’ in 1965. He forced the incumbent to an unexpected second round of voting and suffered what was regarded as an honourable defeat with 44.8 per cent of the vote. He had put down a marker for the next election.

The events of May 1968 brought De Gaulle’s administration to the brink of collapse, and Mitterrand held a press conference to announce that he would stand for the presidency should De Gaulle resign. He had badly misread the mood of the students and workers, who felt this was pure opportunism. Shortly afterwards, De Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly and an overwhelming conservative majority was returned in the resulting elections; the left held Mitterrand responsible for its crushing defeat. He was once again isolated and some were eager to point to his dubious left-wing credentials. After De Gaulle left the scene in 1969, Mollet refused to give Mitterrand the backing of the Socialist Party. The left candidates were promptly eliminated in the first round of the 1969 presidential election.

Mitterrand’s erratic ascent finally gained some momentum in the early 1970s, in circumstances Short does not really spell out. Although he had never been a member of the old party, he managed to seize power at the Epinay congress of the new Parti Socialiste in 1971. As ever a remarkable tactician, he made an improbable alliance with Ceres, a Marxist and Jacobin faction in the PS. Its leader, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, advocated a political alliance with the PCF. The creation of a Union of the Left and the signing of a common programme with the PCF and the small centrist Mouvement des Radicaux de Gauche in 1972 were Mitterrand’s masterstrokes. Since the end of the war, the communists had been the dominant force on the French left. Mitterrand’s aim was bold and simple: by making the PCF a formal coalition partner, he hoped to syphon off a large chunk of the working-class vote which the socialists had progressively lost to the PCF, and position the PS – which had a more ‘moderate’ profile – at the heart of the Union of the Left. Communist voters slowly got used to voting for socialist candidates while more moderate voters, faced with the choice between a socialist and a communist, invariably ended up voting for the more ‘centrist’ of the two.

The presidential election of 1974 brought a narrow victory for the conservative candidate, Giscard d’Estaing. As the left candidate, Mitterrand retained the PS leadership and made earnest efforts to appear further to the left than he actually was. He had discovered Keynes and Marx, whom he started to refer to in his writings and speeches. At the time, the PS was committed to democratic socialism and he was happy to go along with this. Like most commentators, Short does not make clear how radicalised Mitterrand had become in the 1970s. He was not ahead of his time in this; merely in tune with the majority of the electorate – who looked forward to a fairer, more egalitarian society – and of course with his party. At the Epinay congress, doubters rallied to him after he declared: ‘Whoever does not consent to the break with the established order, with capitalism, cannot be a member of the Parti Socialiste’.

By 1976, the PS was ahead of the PCF in the polls and Mitterrand’s mission had been accomplished. He had promised his socialist comrades that he would ‘pluck the communist fowl’ and he had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. In the first round of the 1981 presidential election, Georges Marchais, the PCF general secretary, lagged ten points behind him. Other factors explain the dramatic decline of the PCF from the 1970s onwards, but the Union of the Left was certainly responsible for speeding up its demise as a mass party.

When​ he finally came to power Mitterrand initially stuck to his electoral promises. He nominated Pierre Mauroy, the social democratic mayor of Lille, as prime minister. Mauroy was in charge of implementing important structural reforms based on the president’s ‘110 Propositions for France’, including the nationalisation of several industries, a 10 per cent increase in the minimum wage, a 39-hour working week, five weeks’ paid annual holiday, a super tax, an increase in social benefits and the extension of employees’ rights. This was, at the time, the most left-wing administration in Europe and it was pursuing a brand of social democracy based on Keynesian economics but inflected further to the left. The PS-PCF government took the societal agenda firmly in hand: the death penalty was abolished, the first decentralisation laws were passed, the media were liberalised (the first private television, Canal+, was launched, and pirate radio was legalised). The arts budget was dramatically increased and the Cité musicale de la Villette, the Opéra Bastille and the Zénith, a large concert hall, were commissioned; the Musée Picasso was opened at the Hôtel Sale and the grand projet for the renovation of the Louvre was launched.

The franc came under attack as soon as the socialists took power and in March 1983, two years – and several devaluations – later, Mitterrand made a U-turn in economic policy with the adoption of austerity measures. France was the only industrialised nation that had prioritised reducing unemployment and raising wages over keeping down inflation. Mauroy now signalled that the battle against inflation had become as important to the socialists as tackling unemployment. Lionel Jospin, the leader of the PS, declared that this phase would only be a ‘parenthesis’, but once opened, it was never closed. The new anti-inflationary policies, designed with the terms of the European Monetary System in mind, endured. Further social reforms were put on hold and wages were frozen. When I interviewed Laurent Fabius many years later, the former budget minister confessed that Mitterrand had agonised for days over the decision whether to stay in the EMS or leave it: ‘Mitterrand was not a consummate economist. He kept changing his opinion every time he met one of the visiteurs du soir; that is, the economists and bankers whom the president consulted at night in the Elysée Palace.’ At the time, the Economist noted that Mitterrand’s decision had enabled the socialist government to ‘adopt a reasonable policy’. The radical reformism of 1981-82 seemed dead and buried. Henri Emmanuelli, a left-wing cabinet minister, acknowledged the importance of Mitterrand’s choice: ‘The day we decided to open up our borders and to stay in the EMS, we chose a market economy.’

Fabius succeeded Mauroy in July 1984, by which time the austerity policies of the government were so unpopular that it was on course for a pasting in the 1986 elections. Long before Blair in Britain, Fabius was the ‘moderniser’ of French socialism: under his premiership, the socialists quickly adopted the ‘values’ of the market economy. A new vocabulary based on ‘market share’, ‘economic dynamism’ and ‘international competition’ replaced the progressive discourse of rights, redistribution and social justice. Firms were now environments in which workers could ‘reach their full potential’. Money and personal enrichment conferred social status: this was Blairism before Blair. The difference was that there was no French Anthony Giddens to theorise the dramatic shift to the right. The French ‘socialists’ continued to speak as though they were socialists for fear of further alienating their supporters.

It came as no surprise when the PS lost the 1986 elections. Mitterrand now began a two-year cohabitation with the conservative prime minister Jacques Chirac, whose privatisations and laissez-faire economics rapidly alienated the public, allowing Mitterrand to outmanoeuvre him. In 1988, Mitterrand was 72 and suffering from prostate cancer (it was diagnosed in 1981 but he ordered his personal doctor to falsify reports and so the illness remained secret); despite this he decided to seek re-election. His campaign had the typically post-partisan, centrist slogan ‘La France unie’. The days when he could compare De Gaulle’s new constitution to a ‘permanent coup d’état’ were gone. The general’s last formidable opponent, the man who had rounded on the ‘undemocratic’ and ‘plebiscitary’ institutions of the Fifth Republic, was now himself the exponent of a monarchical presidency. As ‘father of the nation’, Mitterrand campaigned alone: no proper programme, no socialist banners, no collective spirit, just a personal plebiscite.

A week before his re-election, I attended a mass rally in Lille. There were more than ten thousand people in attendance. As usual Mitterrand was very late and his courtiers entered the hall well before him: ministers, party faithful and a group of celebrities who had declared their support (showbusiness stars, intellectuals and journalists). The protocol was from the court of Louis XIV, as Norbert Elias described it: minutely orchestrated, with each guest carefully positioned in the web of etiquette. Those close to the ‘republican king’ were seated in the front rows. Others, less distinguished, sat behind. The president eventually entered the hall and walked past me on his way to the stage. He was small, his face abnormally pale and expressionless. As soon as his supporters spotted him, a deafening clamour went up. A middle-aged man started crying, a woman fainted a few metres away from me, and another pushed me aside, so as to get closer. Mitterrand slowed down and, like a thaumaturgic prince, briefly touched the woman’s arm; she began to scream.

Europe was Mitterrand’s new pet topic and his 1988 electoral platform was based essentially on the question of European integration. He was one of the main architects of the Single European Act of 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 (which contained provisions for the euro). Both paved the way for a European Community, and then for a Union, which is today essentially a free-trade zone in which member states wage economic war against one another instead of co-operating for the sake of their populations. ‘Social Europe’ became the new presidential mantra – a post-socialist ideology. Mitterrand talked a lot about it, promised that it would materialise at any moment, but it never did. His relationship with Thatcher was cordial and, at times, a little flirtatious. He famously remarked that she spoke passable French, but with a strong accent: ‘If you close your eyes, you might think she’s Jane Birkin.’ He said she had ‘the eyes of Caligula, and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe’. Short believes that he ‘respected her’ and ‘she liked him’. He was probably one of the rare politicians, if not the only one, who managed to defeat her politically, when at the Fontainebleau summit in 1984 she failed to get the full British rebate she’d marched in to secure.

By the time his second term started, Mitterrand had lost all interest in the possibility of social transformation. He enjoyed the company of other world leaders, such as Bush Sr, Kohl and Thatcher. His foreign policy was increasingly erratic. In 1994 the Tutsi-dominated opposition in Rwanda accused him of abetting the genocide through France’s military support for the Hutu-dominated francophone government, and of allowing Hutu militias to go on a murderous rampage, despite the presence of the French army. Mitterrand maintained that he knew nothing of the ethnic tensions that erupted after the president’s plane was shot down over Kigali, but this remains one of the darkest hours of his presidency. At home he showed little interest in the declining fortunes of his fellow citizens: ‘We have tried everything we could to fight back unemployment,’ he said. ‘There is nothing else we can do.’ Bernard Tapie, a corrupt businessman, was invited to join the government in 1992. Mitterrand manipulated and mistreated successive prime ministers: Michel Rocard, his arch-enemy, then Edith Cresson and finally Pierre Bérégovoy, who committed suicide in 1993, days after the PS had suffered another crushing defeat in the general election. By the time Mitterrand retired from politics in 1995, he had transformed the PS in the space of ten years or so from a left-wing social democratic party into a catch-all centrist party supported by a few activists and with no real purchase on French society. Historians who wish to study Third-Way ‘modernisations’ of European social democracy need not start with Blair: Mitterrand did it first.

Lionel​ Jospin, the socialist prime minister from 1997 to 2002, tried to redress the shortcomings of the Mitterrand era. In the first months of his premiership, he declared that as far as Mitterrand’s political legacy was concerned, he would have a ‘right of inventory’ (droit d’inventaire). In other words, he would cherry-pick the positive aspects of Mitterrand’s presidencies (essentially the social reforms of the early years) and correct the drift to the right, the cronyism and corruption of the second term. At first Jospin’s economic volontarisme allowed his government to implement progressive reforms, such as the reduction of the working week, but his administration ended badly when he decided to switch the two main elections so that the presidential election would be held before the legislative one. This change – constitutionally ratified – further strengthened the role of the president in the French political system: since 2002, whoever wins the presidential election is almost certain to lead their party to victory in the legislative election that follows. Just as Mitterrand had, Jospin aggravated the trend towards the privileging of personalities in French politics, and he paid dearly for it, failing even to qualify for the second round of the 2002 presidential election. The ‘people of the left’ had let it be known yet again that they did not want a Bonapartist presidency. In the second round voters had to choose between a right-wing candidate, Chirac, and an extreme right candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

François Hollande, the second socialist to be elected president under the Fifth Republic, has none of Jospin’s scruples. In 2012, he campaigned on an anti-Sarkozy platform, promising to break with the incumbent’s ‘hyper-presidency’, review his economic policies, which had largely benefited the rich, and be ‘Mr Normal’, a ‘down-to-earth’ president, leading a simple and irreproachable life: a socialist president. In the run-up to the election he singled out the financial sector as his main enemy and promoted the idea of an ‘exemplary Republic’. Days after his election, he reneged on one of his central pledges: to renegotiate the European fiscal compact, which aims to impose budgetary and structural austerity within the EU. Last year he stood by his budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, until the bitter end: Cahuzac, who was responsible for exposing tax evasion, turned out to have used a secret Swiss bank account to avoid paying taxes in France. In the municipal elections late last month Hollande’s PS suffered a crushing defeat. Working-class voters either didn’t vote or switched to the Front National. At least Mitterrand waited two years before giving up on his ambitions to reform France; Hollande turned his back on his campaign pledges on his first day in the Elysée.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences