The Many Faces of Mitterand

September 1, 2000 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: AcademiaThe Clash Of CivilizationsTory

The Many Faces of Mitterand

Mini Teaser: Vichy functionary, socialist politician, conservative president--the story of an amazingly adaptable Frenchman.

by Author(s): Daniel J. Mahoney

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.

In a famous analysis of the Common Program of the Left published eight years prior to Mitterrand's election to the presidency, Raymond Aron, without challenging the Left's alleged good intentions, had highlighted its economic stupidity and political irresponsibility. The Left, he suggested, wanted to "square the circle." The appeal to good intentions was beside the point. As Aron wrote, "Castro didn't wish to end up with the militarization of Cuban sugar collection nor did Allende wish to ruin the Chilean economy." The dream of a non-collectivist socialism, of a "third way" between social democracy and Soviet socialism, to be brought about through nationalization and state control in an already excessively statist society, was nothing short of delusional. In Aron's view, France would ultimately have to choose between remaining a liberal community and pursuing a dangerous collectivist adventure that would attenuate its strong political and economic ties with Europe and the liberal West. Faced with the disastrous economic results of his initial effort to "break" with capitalism, Mitterrand had the good sense to choose liberalism and "Europe" over ideological purity and fidelity to socialism. In 1983 he rejected various hair-brained "neo-protectionist" schemes advocated by some of his advisers and made his peace with capitalism.

This dramatic turning point is well told by Tiersky, although he remains too impressed by Mitterrand's good intentions and libertarian convictions. Mitterrand effectively reconciled himself and his party to the legitimacy of liberal society, outmaneuvered and marginalized his Communist allies, and pursued the next stages of European integration in conjunction with Chancellor Kohl and the Germans. (The last point is crucial: Mitterrand was genuinely attached to the European project.) When faced with a fundamental choice, Mitterrand's "European" convictions won out over his socialist ones. Conservative critics of the bureaucratic and centralizing tendencies of the European Union should remember that the goal of European integration made new collectivist undertakings of the French type nearly impossible. Perhaps this explains why so many French liberals, critics of socialism and excessive regulation at home, reconciled themselves somewhat uncritically to the European construction. In light of the alternative, it was easier to ignore questions about the eu's bureaucratic heavy-handedness and its threats to national sovereignty.

The author of The Permanent Coup d'etat and the architect of the Socialist Party's ideological lurch to the Left in the 1970s reconciled himself with surprising ease not only to capitalism but also to the constitutional order whose republican legitimacy he had so long denied. He managed artfully to accept "cohabitation", or the sharing of power with the Center-Right, both in 1986 and 1993. He thus preserved his own power and confirmed the flexibility of de Gaulle's "reactionary" constitution. His legacy is substantial: this man of the Left ratified what Franois Furet has called "the republic of the center" and helped put an end to the ideological style of politics that had dominated French national life since the revolution of 1789. By the late 1980s, Mitterrand's Communist allies were marginalized, the coup de gr‰ce coming with the implosion of communism in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991. Not that Mitterrand was always a model of civic responsibility along the way. His decision to restore proportional representation before the 1986 parliamentary elections was a deliberate effort to strengthen the far right-wing National Front at the expense of the responsible parties of the Center-Right. It was, most assuredly, not Mitterrand's finest hour.

This well-written, lively and comprehensive biography errs on the side of interpretative charity. But there is something to be said for at least provisionally attempting to interpret Mitterrand's renowned "contradictions" in the most sympathetic light.

Ronald Tiersky is particularly effective in making sense of the paradoxes that define Mitterrand's public and private lives alike. These contradictions are remarkably, even mind-bogglingly, legion. Tiersky's book does not minimize them and he has the good sense to allow the reader to judge for himself. The principal political paradox of Mitterrand's career-the fact that this socialist anti-Gaullist played a substantial role in reconciling the French to the inevitability of a liberal order and the legitimacy of the Gaullist republic-has already been noted. But the other contradictions are sometimes even more dramatic and have contributed to Mitterrand's widespread reputation as a sphinx-like opportunist.

This self-described agnostic and "existentialist" came out of a militantly right-wing and authoritarian Catholic milieu-the very one that gave rise to Pétain's "national revolution." A hero of the resistance, Mitterrand also served dutifully for over a year in 1942-43 as a civil servant of the Vichy regime, and he maintained close ties with unsavory Vichyites such as René Bousquet long after their misdeeds had been exposed. A socialist critic of bourgeois society and "the power of money", Mitterrand was himself a quintessentially French bourgeois with a classical education and sensibility. Pascal was among his favorite writers. This cultured bourgeois had a daughter out of wedlock and maintained two families, each of which, remarkably, was equally devoted to him at the time of his death in 1996.

A critic of the imperial unaccountability of de Gaulle's presidency, Mitterrand lied with seeming impunity about everything-from his right-wing youth (not fully revealed until the publication of Pierre Péan's 1994 book, Une Jeunesse franaise), to his complicity in the 1985 bombing of the Greenpeace ship, The Rainbow Warrior, and the fact that he had prostate cancer (diagnosed in 1981 but not disclosed to the French people until near the end of his life). Mitterrand even participated in a bizarre plot in 1959 to make himself appear the target of assassination by right-wing terrorist forces, the so-called Observatory Affair. That lamentable display of crude Machiavellianism-clearly intended to harness support from the Left opposition to de Gaulle-marked the humiliating nadir of Mitterrand's career. His parliamentary immunity was suspended by the National Assembly in the same year and he was spared prosecution only after his unsavory accuser and accomplice, Robert Pesquet, fled the country.

Tiersky convincingly argues that the Observatory Affair was the turning point in Mitterrand's career. It disciplined his ambition and taught him the limits of effective duplicity. It gave rise to a more dignified "Machiavellian republicanism", as Tiersky calls it. Mitterrand's remarkable ambition, his undoubted propensity for mendacity and his impressive political flexibility were henceforth circumscribed by a more scrupulous respect for republican norms and institutions. In making this point Tiersky compares Mitterrand to another "Machiavellian republican": Charles de Gaulle.

The comparison is inexact and misleading. De Gaulle was an effective, even expert, practitioner of raison d'état and a man of considerable personal and political ambition. But he was not a liar in any habitual or even Machiavellian sense. Instead, he embodied national and personal honor in an almost classical manner. He stepped down from office in 1946 and 1969 precisely because he did not believe he could continue to maintain his self-respect by accommodating himself to the political status quo.

Mitterrand, in contrast, was Machiavellian in a vulgar and pejorative sense nearly wholly lacking in de Gaulle. He was inordinately attached to political success. Tiersky puts an excessively favorable gloss on this difference. He argues that Mitterrand, not de Gaulle, was France's "representative man", mirroring the contradictions, vicissitudes and transformations that defined the French in the last six decades of the twentieth century. Tiersky's is a democratic perspective that prefers the representative political man to the inaccessible, "aristocratic" political hero or statesman. In this connection, Tiersky nicely highlights Mitterrand's existentialist intellectual and moral convictions. He rightly states that Mitterrand was "against all absolutisms except the existentialist categorical imperative that each person has the moral responsibility to make one's own meaning in a universe with no transcendent meaning." This ethic has an austere, even noble dimension, one that allowed Mitterrand to adjust to great evils (captivity in Germany in 1940-41) and terrible setbacks (such as the Observatory Affair). But it also had something to do with his limitless capacity for mendacity and for the enduring suspicion that his moral commitments were provisional at best. There may be more of a connection between Machiavellian flexibility and existentialist "authenticity" than Mitterrand's sympathetic American biographer appreciates.

Tiersky's biography is factually exhaustive and always intelligent. It is and will remain an indispensable guide for understanding the phenomenon that was Franois Mitterrand and the modern France that he helped define. But Tiersky is in the end insufficiently distant from his Machiavellian republican hero. He gives Mitterrand every benefit of the doubt, and that is too generous. He claims, for example, that Mitterrand's abiding political passion was anti-communism. Undoubtedly Mitterrand wanted the Socialist Party to become what it has become, the dominant party of the Left and a respectable party of government. He certainly had no illusions about Stalinism and showed steadfastness in opposing both pacifist and Soviet-inspired propaganda during the Euromissile crisis of the early 1980s. But he also loathed the bourgeois lifestyle and dreamed of a collectivist society without restrictions on freedom-an irresponsible dream on the other side of the possible. He seemed to lament the disappearance of the German Democratic Republic in 1989-90 and reacted with disturbing equanimity to the pathetic Soviet putsch in August of 1991. He did so, however, not only because of geopolitical concerns about German reunification or the destabilizing effects of the break-up of the Soviet Union, as Tiersky suggests, but because he retained a residual sentimental attachment to the dreams of socialism even after he abandoned any real socialist pretensions. This is one more Mitterrandian "contradiction" that needs to be squarely confronted and not wished away. This existentialist cum Machiavellian never completely overcame or abandoned the Jacobin division of the world into the party of the Left and the party of the Right. Ideological sentimentality coexisted with hard-headed political calculation and cynicism in a mix that defined him. Mitterrand was a Machiavellian socialist as well as a Machiavellian republican.

Tiersky is right to praise Mitterrand for his fidelity to republican institutions (and ultimately to the Fifth Republic). Contra the Mitterrand of 1964, this was a decent if flawed republican regime. He also deserves credit for his choice for Europe and the market economy. But Tiersky is wrong to suggest that Mitterrand finally had a more realistic understanding of France and Europe than his great predecessor, de Gaulle. Tiersky praises Mitterrand for accepting that "the old France" is "no longer big enough for success." In his view, the Mitterrand presidency is a "culmination of secular French and European trends"-trends that make resistance to European integration in its present form ultimately foolhardy.

But de Gaulle did not think that the larger trends of modern society-massification, the establishment of a global commercial society, the growth of hedonistic and individualistic attitudes in modern democracies-could be overcome. Instead, he believed that "republican pedagogy", as Tiersky puts it, ought to moderate these potentially pernicious trends in order to preserve estimable civic and political goods.

The sovereignty of the nation was one such non-negotiable good that was worthy of preservation, in de Gaulle's view. Mitterrand, for his part, was no naive cosmopolitan. He could intransigently defend French interests when he thought they were at stake. But, like most members of the contemporary French and European political classes, he did little to articulate the political meaning of the emerging Europe. As Pierre Manent has written, the market and European integration

"are certainly the alpha and the omega. But one must be able to repeat the rest of the alphabet: every political community, France, as well as Britain and Germany, wants its own existence to be recognized. . . . De Gaulle was the last statesman who knew how to speak of France to France."

Mitterrand never adequately explained his abandonment of radical socialism to the French people, nor did he articulate the larger political purposes that ought to define the European project. He thus failed to exercise that "republican pedagogy" that is essential to enduring statesmanship. Nevertheless, his European convictions were admirable and saved France from a potentially catastrophic second round of socialist experimentation in 1984. He stands out as a particularly intelligent, complex and enigmatic embodiment of what Tony Judt has called "the French twentieth century."

Essay Types: Book Review