WHO WAS MITTERRAND?
Pre-war right-wing rioter? Vichyite? Faker
of his own attempted assassination? Charles Williams ponders the unanswered questions `MITTERRAND, comme Talleyrand.' That was the way he said his name should be pronounced. Was he making a joke? Was it, perhaps, more than that, his own — admittedly condensed — obituary? Tal- leyrand, after all, had served the pre-revo- lutionary monarchy, the Revolution, Napoleon and the restored Bourbon kings with equal impartiality. It was only a mat- ter of minor technical adjustments which political movement was the most appropri- ate at any given time. Could not the same, in more modern terms, be said of Francois Mitterrand? Or is even that just another elaborate tease?
To be sure, there is general agreement about his origins and upbringing: that he was born and brought up in a severely Catholic and conservative household just outside Angouleme, in what might in today's jargon be called 'middle France'; that his father was a maker of vinegar in the Charente, despised by the more aristo- cratic makers of brandy; that he much admired his confessor, Abbe Jobit, and his history teacher, M. Trigoyen. So far, so good. But all that was conventional enough for the period. The same story, with place names and people shuffled around, could be told of de Gaulle, Petain, or even, come to that, Talleyrand. But beyond that point the landscape becomes misty and uncertain. Questions start to crowd in after Mitterrand's escape from his childhood — 'I lived my life in another century,' he said, 'and it took me an effort to jump into this one' — and his arrival in Paris in October 1934. Was he, or was he not, an active member of the right-wing 'Croix de Feu', led by the half- crazed Colonel de La Rocque and blessed by the Holy See and Abbe Jobit? It seems or at least of the youth movement Volontaires Nationaux' which marched alongside. Was he then a member of the even more sinister Cagoule, an openly fas- cist group of ruffians bent on setting up a dictatorship in France along the lines of Mussolini's Italy? Probably not, but he cer- tainly knew the leaders and was almost certainly present at some of the Cagoule- Inspired riots. Did he take an active part or was he a passive onlooker? Mitterrand himself, of course, has claimed that it is 'unfair to judge people on the basis of errors which can be explained by the atmosphere of the time'. Perhaps so, but as his life moves forward, more ambiguities appear. He was called up for military service, but for no obvious reason refused to enter his name for a commission, and it was as a sergeant that he fought, was captured, escaped and made his way to Vichy.
It is here that more doubts set in. Mit- terrand not only found a job in the govern- ment at Vichy but seemed to go out of his way to curry favour with Petain. 'He is magnificent in his demeanour; his face is that of a marble statue': thus runs a letter he wrote about Petain in March 1942. Others called him 'a hundred per cent P6tainist'. Indeed, it was by all accounts not until the spring of 1943 that Mitter- rand took the decision to form a cell of ex- prisoners of war for the Resistance. But by that time he had made friends with the secretary-general of the Vichy police, Rene Bousquet, who in July 1942 was already busying himself delivering 30,000 Diana speaks Jews to forced labour camps in Germany. Is it really possible to believe that he knew nothing at all about what was going on?
For his services to Vichy, Mitterrand was awarded Petain's highest honour, the Fran- cisque. But it was not a simple matter of decoration. Every candidate had to swear an oath: 'I give my person to Marshal Petain as he has given his to France. I undertake to serve him and to remain faithful to his person and to his work.' Mit- terrand's two sponsors were Simon Arbel- lot and Gabriel Jeantet, both important figures at Vichy, but there is little further information; the file containing the details of the award is missing, along with other documents of the 'Order of the Fran- cisque'. Mitterrand's own version of the award is that it was made when he was already in the Resistance and was making a clandestine visit to London. Others are less sure, putting the date of the award in the spring of 1943, well before Mitterrand's visit to London. Right at the end of his life, Mitterrand acknowledged that his chronol- ogy might be faulty, but claimed, 'Certainly I wore the Francisque. It was a bit of a joke.' But if it was such a joke, why did President Mitterrand go out of his way to lay a wreath on Petain's grave in 1992?
It was in December 1943 that Mitterrand first met de Gaulle. The meeting, called by the General with a view to merging differ- ent cells of the Resistance, got off to a bad start. De Gaulle reproached Mitterrand for not joining Free France, and for travelling to Algiers 'in an English plane'. Mitterrand replied tartly that he 'hadn't thought of looking at the type before getting on board'. It went from bad to worse; Mitter- rand refused de Gaulle's proposals, and the General lost his temper. In all, the meeting had lasted 30 minutes, but it set the tone for their future encounters. Neither man was one to forget slights, real or imagined. After the liberation of Paris in the summer of 1944, Mitterrand was nominated general secretary for returned prisoners. Two weeks later, de Gaulle found out about it and promptly sacked him. Was there now a feud between the two men?
Elected to the National Assembly as an independent in November 1946 on a strong anti-Communist platform, Mitterrand took a ministerial job under the socialist Ramadier in a government which included five Communist ministers. By the time the Communists were ejected in 1947, Mitter- rand had become a member of the exclu- sive 'club of 60'. The '60' formed a pool from which ministers throughout the Fourth Republic were to be drawn, whatev- er the political colour of the administra- tion. Mitterrand himself served in 11 governments, ranging from socialist to cen- tre-right. In terms of ideology, the best that biographers seem able to say is that his political positions oscillated between cen- tre-right and centre-left throughout the period. Probably the only consistent theme was his firm defence of the Republic, par- ticularly against de Gaulle's onslaughts from Colombey-les-deux-Eglises.
Was Mitterrand, as some have claimed, the representative par excellence of the Fourth Republic? It certainly suited all his talents: his ability to inspire devotion among his followers, his acute mind, his sensitive political nose, and his skill at wrong-footing his opponents. Consistently returned by a centre-right electorate in the Nievre on an anti-Communist ticket, he equally consistently was prepared to vote, depending on the issue, with the parties of the centre-left. On the other hand, he has never been classed among the heavy- weights of the Fourth Republic, such as Mendes-France, Schuman, Pinay or Mol- let. Perhaps it was only a question of age. Mitterrand himself certainly thought so. He was widely tipped, not least by himself, to become prime minister in 1958, or soon after. But his ambition was frustrated, since before it could happen the Fourth Republic had collapsed and de Gaulle was back in power. Mitterrand was left isolat- ed, shouting defiance.
It was at this point (out of dislike of de Gaulle?) that Mitterrand took a new polit- ical direction. There had to be an Opposi- tion and, since almost all the other politicians of the Fourth Republic had meekly lined up behind de Gaulle, Mitter- rand was the only leader available. This being so, he had to develop a clearly defined political identity (defender of republicanism against the 'permanent coup d'etat'), to identify a new electoral strategy (the union of those opposed to de Gaulle — in practice, the Socialists and Commu- nists) and to cobble together a personal political stance which would allow him plausibly to claim the leadership of the new group.
But no sooner had he embarked on this course, now as Senator for the Nievre after he had lost his seat in the Assembly, than he was caught up in the extraordinary `affaire de l'Observatoire'. Again there are two versions, both based (more or less) on the same set of facts. On 16 October 1959, it was announced that Senator Mitterrand had escaped an attempted assassination. His car, it was said, had been followed by another car containing a group of ruffians, Mitterrand had stewed his car round, jumped out and fled from the Place de l'Observatoire into the safety of the Lux- embourg Gardens. All this was later explained to the examining magistrate, Mitterrand re-enacting in court, with the aid of a chair, his dramatic leap over the hedge to safety.
So far, so interesting; the French press could talk of nothing else. It then appeared that a Poujadist deputy, Robert Pesquet, had been involved. Pesquet claimed that the whole incident had been set up by Mitterrand himself. Furthermore he, Pesquet, had been recruited by Mitter- rand to help in this bizarre montage. The investigation was halted, and Mitterrand himself was later charged with falsifying evidence and contempt of court. He claimed immunity as a Senator, but that was lifted at the government's (and possi- bly de Gaulle's personal) request. In the event, the case fizzled out.
Mitterrand's version is quite different. He had been told by Pesquet, he said, that he was on a right-wing hit-list, and had been warned of the impending attack. He had not, he went on, told the police of Pesquet's involvement, for fear of expos- ing him to danger if the attempt failed. It may well be that Mitterrand was right, but there are still many who believe the oppo- site. But if he was right, why did he not make more of this golden opportunity to discredit the Right, and to implicate the government and de Gaulle? As it was, he allowed the damage to his reputation to hang in the air. In politics, it has been said, you recover from anything, and, indeed, Mitterrand did. During the next ten years he spent his time building his support and undermining sup- port for his competitors. There was, to be sure, a bad setback when he misread the implications of the riots of May 1968, and he was largely blamed for the rout of the Left in the subsequent general election. It is from this point, however, that Mitterrand dates his conversion to 'socialism'. He traced the origin to his religious upbring- ing, mentioning the Sermon on the Mount as an important source of socialist belief. Surprisingly, he was furious when nobody believed him. 'Mitterrand did not become a socialist,' said Mollet, 'he learned to talk like one, a different thing altogether.'
The tactic, if that was what it was, achieved eventual success. At Epinay in June 1971, Mitterrand emerged as leader of a revived Parti Socialiste, went on to make common cause with the Commu- nists (whom until then he had insulted at every possible opportunity), survived elec- toral defeat in 1974, outmanoeuvred his competitors Deferre and Rocard, and, after 20 years' effort, led a winning coali- tion in 1981. But after so much effort and such a long time Mitterrand himself seemed to have lost energy. 'Socialism', of course, only lasted for barely two years; and the rest of Mitterrand's presidency could conveniently be described as one of ragged retreat until it seemed to subside under the twin weight of corruption and suicidal despair. He seemed to have lost all conviction — to be talking only to himself.
What did Mitterrand really believe during all this time? It is almost impossible to say. Nevertheless, there was one consistent theme of his presidency in which he never lost interest. He was a continuing and unre- constructed proponent of European Union. It is perhaps the last enigma. France, after all, has throughout her modern history played the role of a great power. It has not previously been in the French nature to sub- merge the country in a wider union, and it may still not be. Why was Mitterrand, that most French of Frenchmen, such a Euro- fanatic? Could it just possibly be that he was so determined to be anti-Gaullist that he embraced any policy of which the General would have disapproved? In the latter years he adopted a number of striking poses and built great monuments, as if to explain to the dead General that his successor was as great a man as he. Even in death, the quiet burial at Jarnac and the great Requiem in Notre- Dame mirror the events of 12 November 1970: a quiet funeral at Colombey and a sim- ilar Requiem in Notre-Dame. It might be a coincidence but, as was said on another occasion, it's a funny old world.
Lord Williams of Elvel is the author of The Last Great Frenchman: A Life of General de Gaulle (1993). He is a Labour front- bench spokesman in the Lords.