Ronald Tiersky, François Mitterrand: The Last French President (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000) 431 pp., $29.95.
In 1964, six years after the establishment of the Fifth Republic of France, Franois Mitterrand published The Permanent Coup d'État, a thundering denunciation of Charles de Gaulle's "regime of personal power" and a call for the return of parliamentary republicanism and the rule of law in France. In 1995 Mitterrand retired after fourteen dramatic years as occupant of de Gaulle's presidency, an "emperor in republican clothing", to use Ronald Tiersky's felicitous formulation in his new biography of the late French president.
Mitterrand, the quintessential centrist politician of the parliamentary Fourth Republic (1946-58), was one of a handful of prominent politicians (outside of the Stalinist French Communist Party) to persist in denying the legitimacy and republican character of the Gaullist regime. In the 1960s and 1970s, Mitterrand re-invented himself as a man of the Left, became the leader of the Socialist Party, and forged a "Common Program" and electoral alliance with the Communists. After twenty-three years in opposition and two failed runs for the presidency, Mitterrand led the Union de gauche to dramatic victories in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 1981. At the time, Mitterrand and his allies spoke euphorically of a "rupture" with the past, with bourgeois capitalism and all its works. They pursued a decidedly ideological program dedicated to incompatible ends: enhanced growth and job creation on the one hand, and statist goals of redistribution of wealth, nationalization of financial and banking sectors and of key industrial groups on the other. To these they added the libertarian dreams of political decentralization and worker self-management in industry.