An Old Age is Out, Review of Pierre PŽan's Une jeunesse franaise, Franois Mitterrand: 1934-1947

March 1, 1995 Tags: Academia

An Old Age is Out, Review of Pierre PŽan's Une jeunesse franaise, Franois Mitterrand: 1934-1947

Mini Teaser: An Old Age is Out, Review of Pierre PŽan's Une jeunessefranaise, Franois Mitterrand: 1934-1947 (Paris: Fayard, 1994);Emmanuel Faux's Thomas LeGrand, and Gilles Perez, La main droite deDieu, (Paris: ƒditions du Seuil, 1994); Edwy Plenel's Un temps dec

An Old Age is Out, Review of Pierre PŽan's Une jeunessefranaise, Franois Mitterrand: 1934-1947 (Paris: Fayard, 1994);Emmanuel Faux's Thomas LeGrand, and Gilles Perez, La main droite deDieu, (Paris: ƒditions du Seuil, 1994); Edwy Plenel's Un temps dechien (Paris: Stock, 1994); Jean Montaldo's Lettre ouverte d'un"chien" ˆ Franois Mitterrand au nom de la libertŽ d'aboyer (Paris:Albin Michel, 1994); Jean Montaldo's Mitterrand et les quarantevoleurs... (Paris: Albin Michel, 1994); John Laughland's The Deathof Politics: France Under Mitterrand (London: Michael Joseph,1994).
J.W. Friend

As Franois Mitterrand's long tenancy of the French presidencymoves toward its close, negative verdicts on his career multiply.Intense coverage of the scandals disfiguring his second term wasconnected with the suicide in May 1993 of his last Socialist primeminister, Pierre BŽrŽgovoy. Mitterrand attempted to rejectaccusations both against himself and his party en bloc by chargingat BŽrŽgovoy's funeral that he had been driven to suicide,exclaiming "all the explanations in the world do not justifythrowing to the dogs a man's honor and, in the end, his life, ashis accusers doubly renounced the basic laws of our Republic, thosewhich protect the dignity and the liberty of each among us."
Two investigative journalists felt themselves directly attacked.Edwy Plenel of Le Monde, (a left-wing paper which has showndecreasing enthusiasm for Mitterrand in recent years) and a moreright-wing writer, Jean Montaldo, who might be termed the FrenchJack Anderson, both rapidly produced new attacks whose titlespicked up the word "dog." Shortly before, Montaldo had publishedanother and longer book entitled Mitterrand and the FortyThieves.
The president has not responded to these assaults, but during late1993 and early 1994 he gave an unusual series of private interviewsto journalists who wanted to question him about othercontroversies--his service with Marshal PŽtain's Vichy regime, andhis continuing association with and tolerance for members of theextreme right. The resulting books drew much more attention --andsold better--than Plenel and Montaldo's books, in part at leastbecause the president was finally admitting details of his earliercareer which he had long denied or sought to retouch.
The biggest success has been Pierre PŽan's Une jeunesse franaise,which describes Mitterrand's right-wing politics and connections inhis student years, his army service and time as a pow in Germany,and minutely examines the controversial twenty-two months he spentas an official of the Vichy government before going undergroundinto the Resistance. A storm of public comment obliged Mitterrandto give a long explanatory interview to the editor of theconservative daily Le Figaro, following up with a televisioninterview.
The interest in Une jeunesse franaise stems from currentfascination with a period long repressed in French recollection andhistory--the four years of Marshal Henri-Philippe PŽtain's FrenchState, which turned its back on the compromised democracy of theThird Republic and sought collaboration with Hitler's New EuropeanOrder. Mitterrand had never denied that after escaping from aGerman pow camp in late 1941 he took a government job in Vichy--buthe had earlier elided this period with his formal entry intoresistance activity in late 1943--as if he had become a resistershortly after his return to France.
In admitting that he was a right-wing activist in his student daysand initially a strong believer in PŽtain's quasi-fascist regime,the Socialist president shocked many younger voters with continuingaffinities to the left who knew little about his biography,although for the older generation it was no secret that he hadbegun on the right. He had, however, touched up some of the detailsof his biography to make his transition from Vichy official toresistance fighter seem more rapid and less complex than in fact itwas.
The controversy on Mitterrand's early beliefs and activities hastwo themes, both beginning with the Occupation and Resistance. Thefirst concerns the sincerity of a man who has moved from right toleft and back to rather less left. If Mitterrand now admits beliefsand actions he had blurred during most of his political career,when was he sincere? When he became a resistant after being aPŽtain enthusiast? In the 1970s when as first secretary of theSocialist Party he denounced capitalism and talked of theexploitation of man by man? (Mitterrand's predecessor as head ofthe old Socialist Party, Guy Mollet, sneered, "Mitterrand has notbecome a Socialist, he has only learned to speak socialist, whichis not the same thing.") Was Mitterrand sincere at any point in hiscareer, or only a skillful opportunist?
The second and parallel theme is Mitterrand's life-long hostilityto Charles de Gaulle. Becoming involved in the Resistance in early1943, and rapidly assuming a leadership role, Mitterrand looked toGeneral Henri Giraud, an important figure in Algeria in early 1943(backed by the United States as leader of the Free French). Giraudhimself professed loyalty to PŽtain until September 1943. Hispersonality allowed those in France who wanted to fight and stillkeep faith in PŽtain to maintain some coherence. PŽan's book isvery good on this difficult and confusing period.
In December 1943, young Mitterrand arrived in Algiers, via London.It was his bad luck to arrive there as a Giraud partisan just atthe point (as PŽan points out) when de Gaulle had definitivelyout-maneuvered Giraud as head of the Free French. When Mitterrandwas introduced to de Gaulle, their relationship began badly, turnedworse at the Liberation, and remained bad in the years after deGaulle's return to power in 1958, which Mitterrand opposed. Thatopposition marked his conversion to the left.
Mitterrand has always incurred the hatred of the Gaullist right,far more than that of the Vichyite right. La main droite de Dieuspeaks of "a recurrent theme [which] runs through his twoseven-year terms, one of national reconciliation borrowed from theextreme right, which permits a discreet drawing of the veil overold wounds, and treats the fighters on opposite sides as equallycomplicit in a story now over and done with."
Strong Gaullists like current Interior Minister Charles Pasqua seein Mitterrand's justification of his youth using the theme ofnational reconciliation a continuation of his long war against deGaulle. Breaking on June 18, 1940 with a government legallyestablished and recognized by all major states, de Gaulle had totreat Vichy as illegitimate from the beginning--or else he was arebel.
Both to justify himself and give new spirit to a defeated Francelargely liberated by foreigners, de Gaulle created a myth which, inthe words of the historian Henry Rousso:
"did not so much glorify the Resistance (and certainly not therŽsistants) as it celebrated a people in resistance, a peoplesymbolized exclusively by 'the Man of June 18th,' withoutintermediaries such as political parties, movements, or clandestineleaders. This image was to be superimposed on the far more complexand inconsistent realities of the Occupation."
The communists adopted a parallel myth, claiming almost the entirecredit for the Resistance as the "party of the 75,000 fusillŽs."(The total of French men and women shot by the Nazis is reckoned at29,600.) Resistance members like Mitterrand who had been firstpro-PŽtain, then pro-Giraud, were caught between the two prevailingmyths: liking neither de Gaulle nor the communists, they could notdefend the original legitimacy of Vichy; the regime had ended bytotally delegitimizing itself. But they have continued to questionthe validity of the Gaullist myth.
For long the dominant version of French history in the 1940s, thatmyth has undergone much examination and criticism in recent years,and many people can at least vaguely apprehend that Vichy was morecomplicated than de Gaulle's version had it, and understandMitterrand's youthful positions without approving them. Moreshocking to more people than admissions about his youth was thepresident's refusal to condemn the major protagonists of the Vichyperiod. Much disapproving comment had ensued when it was learnedthat he had annually sent a presidential wreath on Armistice Day toPŽtain's grave on the prison island where the old soldier haddied--so much so that in 1994 he desisted.
Other self-justifying interviews Mitterrand decided to give in1993-1994 helped produce La main droite de Dieu (The Right Hand ofGod). The title is a pun on one of Mitterrand's nicknames, givenhim by a television program in which he was caricatured as apompous green frog who called himself "God," but the word "right"refers to a whole series of right-wing actions: Mitterrand'samnesty of the generals in Algeria who rebelled against de Gaullein 1961, the aid he quietly extended to extreme rightist Jean-MarieLe Pen (the better to split the right); the wreaths he had placedon PŽtain's tomb; and continuing right-wing associations throughouthis career, especially his friendship with the formersecretary-general of the Vichy police, RenŽ Bosquet.
Arrested after the Liberation, Bosquet was tried and acquitted in1949, going on to a considerable career as a banker and director ofthe powerful and mildly left southern newspaper La DŽpche du Midi.Charges based on offenses to human rights were leveled against himagain in 1989, as the organizer of the now-notorious VŽlodromed'Hiver roundup in 1942, in which Vichy's police arrested thousandsof foreign Jews and handed them over to the Nazis. Few returned.Mitterrand admitted to his interviewers that he maintained friendlyrelations with Bosquet, arguing that he had been acquitted in 1949.He dropped the contact only in 1986 when it turned out (Mitterranddixit) "that his responsibility was perhaps greater than was saidat the time," notably in the VŽl d'Hiv affair. Mitterrand however,tried after that to keep Bosquet from coming to trial. In theevent, Bosquet was murdered in 1993 before the trial could takeplace--by an apparent lunatic.
The Montaldo and Plenel books appearing in 1994 concernMitterrand's relation to the already much discussed Socialistcorruption. When entering into power in 1981 the Socialists argued(and even believed) that the conservative parties in office fortwenty-three years were corrupt, while they themselves were notonly clean but incorruptible. The scandals of the past few yearsdemonstrated the contrary, as Socialist politicians and officialswere hauled into court. But the books by Montaldo and Plenel aim atthe chief executive, who can only be hauled into the court ofpublic opinion.
Plenel mixes his tale with so many highfalutin literary referencesthat one wonders whether anyone ever taught him the journalist'strade of telling a straight story; Montaldo is a bulldog who goesstraight for the bone and crunches on it, but his books are writtenin such a breathlessly accusatory style that it is hard to keep upwith all the characters and charges, or to assess them. Bothauthors take up a number of scandals, but their central figure isRoger-Patrice Pelat, an old friend of Mitterrand's whom he firstmet in pow camp, and who served with him in the Resistance and thenwent into business. The principal informant against Pelat for bothwriters was Franois de Grossouvre, a longtime friend ofMitterrand's, though no Socialist, who served him in a number ofconfidential capacities before becoming disenchanted. De Grossouvrecommitted suicide in his office in the presidential office complexin April 1994.
In 1982 Pelat sold his company, Vibrachoc, to the recentlynationalized Compagnie GŽnŽrale d'ElectricitŽ. According toMontaldo, pressure was exerted from on high to force the sale of acompany which in any case was worth far less than the 110 millionfrancs paid for it. Pelat is also alleged to have benefited from ahotel built in North Korea by a French company, where he served asmiddleman thanks to his close relation to Mitterrand. Montaldocharges that over the years Pelat paid large sums to Mitterrand,first in the form of a dummy retainer as his lawyer (until 1981)with Mitterrand's younger son replacing him thereafter, and then tohelp President Mitterrand buy property for his mistress of manyyears and their illegitimate daughter.
The best authenticated scandal concerning Pelat occurred in 1988,when the nationalized French aluminum company Pechiney purchasedTriangle-American Can. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissionnoted that large blocks of American Can stock had been purchasedjust before the announcement of the company's sale at over fivetimes its previous stock quotation. sec investigations rapidlyascertained that Pelat, along with several associates, had madeprofits of several million francs from insider trading. The preciseinformant has not been identified, but Alain Boublil, then directorof the cabinet of finance and Economy Minister Pierre BŽrŽgovoy,were implicated, along with Max ThŽret, a prominent businessman whohad been one of the financial backers of the Socialist Party. Pelatdied of a heart attack in early 1989, shortly after beingindicted.
Thus when it became known in 1993 that BŽrŽgovoy, then primeminister, had benefited in 1987 (when out of office) from a millionfranc interest-free loan from Pelat to help him buy an apartment inthe fashionable sixteenth arrondissement, the story was not onlydamaging in itself, it reopened other stories about Pelat andconnected the presidency with a whole series of financial scandalsand still more scandalous charges, most of which involved dubiousfinancing of the Socialist Party. There is little doubt that thiswhole complex helped to create the overwhelming vote against theSocialists in March 1993.
John Laughland's book, subtitled "France under Mitterrand," isless an examination of Mitterrand's France than a philippic againstthe whole French system of government:
"For the last two hundred years or so, people have been saying thatthe British constitution is archaic and that it ought to bereformed along European, usually French lines. Usually such viewsgo hand in hand with a desire for more administrative government,and a dislike for the apparent anarchy of parliamentarism anddemocracy. Now that Britain faces the prospect of being governed bya French or a Franco-German style European government, it is timeto crawl inside the political system of France to see whether thegrass is really so much greener on the other side of theChannel."
Most of Laughland's investigation is a denunciation of Mitterrand'sadministration root and branch, but without kind words for thepresident's rivals or probable successors either. The tide ofcriticism of Mitterrand's conduct of his office has risen so highthat Laughland has an embarrassment of riches in choosingdevastating quotes, from whatever sector of French political life.When he can bring himself to say something approving aboutMitterrand, he is unwilling to let it stand. Thus he notes thatMitterrand "effectively reduced the once-powerful French CommunistParty to political irrelevance," but complains that Mitterrand'stactics depended neither on consistency nor logic, becauseMitterrand shaped his tactics in the late 1970s to steal thecommunist vote away from the Communist Party. "In other words, forMitterrand, the real problem about communism was not that it istotalitarian, but that it represented an electoral threat to him.Only the propagation of similar illusions would enable him toovercome that threat."
In his haste to score a point Laughland here misses a realcriticism; the "similar illusions" concerned not "totalitarianism,"on which increasing numbers of communist voters nourished doubts,but an unrealistic economic program conceived in the boom years,which Mitterrand refused to drop--and which caused immense troublewhen he was elected in 1981 and attempted to put part of it intoaction.
Since Laughland's main purpose is to emphasize that Britain notonly has nothing to learn from France but in closer association inthe European Union has much to fear from French and Europeanadministrative and political practices, he devotes much space topolitics--not without extensive citations from the various books onscandals, however. There is some good stuff on thebureaucratization of French politics and elitism in the role of thetop civil servants, the Žnarques.
Laughland attacks Mitterrand for remaining in power in"cohabitation" as "an ultimate perversion of the constitution."This is an arguable position, although others have seen it as proofthat the constitution can survive a change of legislative powerwithout kicking out the executive. An American is perhaps lessshocked by the idea of this cohabitation of opposing parties in theexecutive and legislative than is an Englishman--especially onedetermined to be shocked.
Laughland attacks Mitterrand's weakening of the already decliningprestige of the prime minister, but again overreaches, chargingthat Mitterrand "has changed prime ministers as a man might changehis shirt. He has had seven prime ministers in twelve years...morethan his three predecessors over twenty-three years, [who] had onlytwo each." Aside from the minor fact that de Gaulle had three, thisjudgment glides over the fact that two of these changes resultedfrom election defeats. Mitterrand did fire Michel Rocard abruptly,after three years, for being a success, and Edith Cresson afterless than one, for being a failure, and judgments are in order--butnot necessarily Laughland's.
A number of inaccuracies, mostly minor in themselves, suggest thatLaughland is less familiar with his material than he should be.Numerous dates are a few years off. In a criticism of theConstitutional Council, which corresponds roughly to the AmericanSupreme Court, he says that its current president, Robert Badinter,is an old ally of the president (correct) and a professionalpolitician (inaccurate; he was a famous criminal lawyer), havingserved as minister of the interior (inaccurate) and of justice(correct). "The idea that the council should have a 'President' wholeads from the front is itself strange, that the post should beoccupied by a man who is an old friend of the President of theRepublic, even stranger." In other words, what is not British isnot right.
Of the clutch of books discussed here, four are intenselypolemical. Laughland has delivered a sermon for the congregation ofBritish Eurosceptics. While Une jeunesse franaise and La maindroite de Dieu are far from non-judgmental, they are sufficientlybalanced to aid in the verdicts on Franois Mitterrand and hispresidency which are yet to come. Much in the charges of corruptionin other books is thus far unproven, though quite enough remains toleave a strong smell hanging over the political landscape. A periodwhich began with great excitement (and fear) in 1981 ends fourteenyears later with a whimper. One of the better things in Laughland'sbook is the epigraph, from one of Dryden's last poems, "Tis timethe old age was out, and time to begin a new."

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