Mitterrand: France's Citizen King

Mitterrand: France's Citizen King

The slippery, survivable French president once described as a combination of "Machiavelli, Don Corleone, Casanova and the Little Prince."

MITTERRAND: I’d like to know what we’re really talking about. If the American leaders would spell out what they mean by “the political role of NATO” everything would be a lot easier . . .

BUSH [struggling]: Well, in a political situation that has changed, NATO’s role will be different. Not just military, but more political . . . NATO will have to change gear . . . to get us through the critical period. We don’t know who the enemy is anymore.

MITTERRAND [silkily]: Yes, it’s a nuisance not having an enemy.

One of Short’s strengths is his ability to draw on only recently accessible official transcripts and accounts like the one above to show us what his subject actually had to say—if not what he was really thinking—as events unfolded around him. Short also managed, just in the nick of time, to secure interviews with a number of aging Mitterrand family members, friends and political sparring partners finally willing to speak candidly about a man some of them respected, some loved, some loathed, and almost all found intimidating—and enigmatic—while he was alive.

Part of the problem may have been deliberate. Mitterrand’s choice of historical role model says a lot about his view of public affairs and human nature: Cardinal Mazarin. Jules Mazarin was a seventeenth-century Italian adventurer who is better known for his political intrigues than for any positive achievements. Unlike Cardinal Richelieu, a statesman of formidable vision whose leadership led to France supplanting Spain as Western Europe’s dominant land power, Mazarin is mainly remembered as a venal opportunist who looted the royal coffers and practiced nepotism on a grand scale. He was probably the lover of the widowed Queen Anne, Louis XIII’s rather dim Spanish Habsburg consort, the mother of Louis XIV and regent during her son’s minority. While Mazarin did manage to keep the monarchy afloat through the civil unrest of Louis XIV’s childhood, he was also one of the main political irritants that exacerbated the civic strife to begin with. Above all, he was a glib survival artist with no moral or ethical core and no larger sense of purpose.

Mitterrand so admired Mazarin that when his own longtime mistress insisted on having a baby before it was too late, he named the resulting daughter Mazarine. As Short remarks, “Much of what the cardinal wrote in his Breviary for Politicians could be taken as a vade mecum for Mitterrand himself,” as the following passage confirms:

Be sparing with your gestures, walk with measured steps and maintain a posture at all times which is full of dignity . . . Each day . . . spend a moment studying how you should react to events which might befall you . . . Know that how you will appear [to others] will be determined by the way you have fashioned your inner self beforehand. Always keep in mind these five precepts: Simulate; dissimulate; trust nobody; speak well of everyone; anticipate before you act . . . There is scant chance that people will put a good complexion on what you say or do. Rather they will twist it and think the worst of you.

However, Short adds, the saying that fit Mitterrand best was one he attributed to another corrupt seventeenth-century French cleric, Cardinal de Retz: “If you set aside ambiguity, it is always to your own detriment.” In his later years, Short says, Mitterrand’s “secretiveness and mistrust grew more pronounced,” but

his ambiguities had begun much earlier. In the 1940s Mitterrand was at Vichy and in the Resistance; in the 1950s he was elected to parliament by voters from both Left and Right. His personal friends ranged from communists to those who, before the war, had supported fascist groups. Even at his most doctrinaire, as head of the Socialist Party, he rejected ideological constraints. He believed in social justice, he said, which meant that he was on the Left. But he would not allow any else’s “-ism” to dictate to him what he should think.


IF MITTERRAND had a blind spot, a policy area where his own ignorance left him prey to the “-isms” of others, it was economics. He was a true economic illiterate. Between family allowances and the perks available to a member of the French governing elite, he never needed to think much about money and therefore acquiesced to a pie-in-the-sky series of socialist entitlements in the early days of his presidency: workers got a fifth week of paid vacation; the retirement age was lowered from sixty-five to sixty; the workweek was reduced from forty to thirty-nine hours with no pay cut; the minimum wage and welfare entitlements were substantially increased; and “hundreds of thousands of civil servants were recruited.” Banks, insurance companies and key industrial corporations were also nationalized, and 130,000 illegal immigrants were granted residency permits.

Intoxicated by the mood of the moment, Mitterrand himself would crow, “We’ve started the true rupture with capitalism. Class struggle is not dead. It is going to have a second youth!” But youth is fleeting. When Mitterrand came to power in May 1981, “the whole of the Western world was already in recession,” stricken with massive unemployment and runaway inflation. As Short points out, “Pursuing expansion at a time when the rest of the industrialized world was committed to deflation, as Mitterrand did in 1981 and the first half of 1982, was economic madness.”

“Reagan was no economist either,” he concludes, “but at least he had the good sense to do what his advisers told him. Mitterrand did not.” Actually, Reagan had majored in economics at Eureka College—for whatever that was worth—but the larger point is that perhaps the biggest blunder of Mitterrand’s presidency was the result of one of the few times he allowed socialist dogma to blind himself to economic reality. Today, the stagnant, stratified state of the French economy is still the largest, most lingering debit on the balance sheet of François Mitterrand’s fourteen-year presidency.

Why did he think and act the way he did? That unreconstructed eighteenth-century Tory, Samuel Johnson, presciently defined the Mitterrandian mind-set when he told Boswell that “your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear leveling up to themselves. They would all have some people under them.” Convinced of his own superiority, Mitterrand never had much respect for the mass of “oppressed” mankind. He did, however, nurture a deep resentment against those occupying social, economic or political positions above him. There are two striking examples from his early life. His family’s wealth was based on a vinegar distillery in the heart of cognac country, which was a little like brewing beer in champagne territory: respectable but not quite up to snuff socially. The Mitterrands were also Catholic in an area where most of the traditional commercial elite had Protestant Huguenot roots. So, while the young François was relatively affluent—dressing, dancing, and playing golf and tennis like the local grandees—socially he was on the outside looking in. Given his personal sense of real or imagined superiority, this had to rankle.


MITTERRAND ALSO professed a distaste for the officer class, claiming—after the fact—that on the eve of World War II, he had deliberately chosen to do his national service as an enlisted man rather than mingle with the official elite. Actually, he had done his best—insufficient, as it turned out—to join the officer corps, entering a preparatory course for officer cadets at the military college of Samur, originally set up to train cavalry officers after the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War. Short informs us that Mitterrand “failed ignominiously . . . because he botched a question about military theory.” As a result, Short adds, “His vanity was wounded. Just as he always passed over in silence the year he had had to repeat at the college in Angoulême, so now he put it about that he had decided not to seek a commission, preferring to serve in the ranks.”

After being drafted, he rose to the grade of sergeant. He was wounded in action, decorated for bravery and escaped from a German prison camp. His experience as a noncommissioned officer and POW resulted in two of his few lifelong friendships based on a footing of equality. Both were with exceptionally able, “street smart” members of the working class. Two of Mitterrand’s finer qualities—his ability to step back and observe even life-or-death situations with calm objectivity, and a poetic strain in his nature that enabled him to view even trench warfare with a poetic eye—are on display in his account of the day he was wounded by German artillery fire near Verdun:

I was sleeping in a shell-hole . . . Suddenly at 5 a.m., machine-guns and artillery opened fire with a long barrage aimed in our direction . . . The Germans marched towards us, singing . . . Our commander [Edouard Morot-Sir, a philosophy professor in civilian life] ordered us to move towards Dead Man’s Hill. The weather was wonderful, and as though in tribute to the splendor of that month of June . . . the assault troops paused for a moment. Morot-Sir and I had only to stretch out our hands to pick the wild strawberries that carpeted the hillside. Then a shell exploded above our heads . . . I was knocked out by the explosion.