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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 was even able to strike a gallows-humor note when describing how, while he was being wheeled along in a stretcher as part of a retreating crowd of troops and refugees, Italian aircraft appeared and machine-gunned the column. Everyone ran for cover, including the orderly in charge of Mitterrand’s stretcher,

who left me with the comforting words, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back!” I remained there, immobile, looking up at the sky, watching the planes punching holes in the road with a rosary of bullets. The alert over, we resumed our wandering. Everywhere we went, there were wounded . . . At Esnes-en-Argonne, surgeons were operating in a cave, amputating arms and legs. I wasn’t keen [on that], so we pressed on.

It was his experience as a soldier and then as a POW that provided Mitterrand with a base on which to build a political career. As a Vichy functionary dealing with the repatriation of French POWs, he was able to use his arguably collaborationist position to become a covert member of the Resistance with a potential constituency of thousands of combat veterans behind him. It paid off, and continued to do so under the fragmented Fourth Republic, a demoralized, ramshackle parliamentary system with short-lived governments presiding over a destitute country recovering from an alien occupation and simultaneously losing most of its overseas colonies. There were ups and downs, but Mitterrand, by carefully hedging his bets and cultivating the right leaders, benefited from what might be called political “bracket creep,” occupying numerous cabinet posts in transient governments while biding his time.

Gradually, however, his star began to wane. From being one of the bright, promising young men to emerge from the Resistance, he morphed into a middle-aged professional politician in a rut. By 1959, with Charles de Gaulle freshly installed as an empowered president under a new constitution, the game of political musical chairs was over, especially for a man increasingly identifying himself with the Left. This led to what can only be described as a grotesque episode. Mitterrand became involved in a complex scandal that has never been fully explained: the “Observatory Affair,” so called because the staged shooting occurred beside the seventeenth-century observatory erected by Louis XIV near the Luxembourg Gardens. This much, however, is clear: Mitterrand was party to a faked, prearranged assassination attempt designed to boost his popularity. It backfired because some of the dubious characters who set it up had their own agenda—including showing up François Mitterrand.

For most politicians, that would have been the end. Not for Mitterrand. Slowly but surely he started anew, climbing the greasy pole to leadership of what remained of the French Left. Reorganizing and energizing it, he led it in several losing elections—but with gradually improving showings—until he finally came to power as the first socialist president of the Fifth Republic.

 

AT THIS point le bourgeois gentilhomme finally came into his own, playing a twentieth-century role in French politics that might be compared to that of Louis Philippe in the nineteenth century. Louis Philippe was an intelligent but not particularly charismatic member of a junior branch of the French royal family. When the last legitimist Bourbon king, Charles X, was sent packing by the Parisian mob in 1830, he became the “Citizen King,” surviving for eighteen years by juggling ministries, manipulating public opinion and playing the role of a superior but benevolent “first citizen.” The revolutionary fervor that swept Europe in 1848 brought an end to his experiment in bourgeois monarchy, but it had been a good show while it lasted. Like Mitterrand’s fourteen years in office, however, Louis Philippe’s reign had been more of an exercise in personal political survival than a serious attempt at productive, principled governance.

What Mitterrand rather ungraciously said of Charles de Gaulle’s immediate successor, Georges Pompidou, could just as easily have been applied to Louis Philippe or Mitterrand himself: “What will he have left as a memory of his time? Nothing or so little.”

And yet there is something so quintessentially bourgeois French about François Mitterrand that one hopes he will be remembered, if not as a great statesman, then at least as the embodiment of a venerable French tradition. He was a leader both devious and dignified who—having retired from public office to die quietly and with courage from terminal cancer—would be attended at his graveside by both his wife and legitimate sons and his mistress and illegitimate daughter; a man who was flagrantly unfaithful to his lifelong spouse but, for many years, tolerated her own affair with a live-in lover considerably her junior who often made a third party at their breakfast table.

If it hadn’t all happened in real life it would have made for an excellent, if not entirely plausible, Feydeau farce. But it did happen, and the twisted, tragicomic tale of a man who represented many of the contradictions—and some of the ideals—of the problematic nation he led has now been chronicled with insight and exactitude by Short.

 

Aram Bakshian Jr. is a contributing editor to The National Interest and served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.