A Taste for Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of Francois Mitterrand
  • A Taste for Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of Francois Mitterrand
  • A Taste for Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of Francois Mitterrand

A Taste for Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of Francois Mitterrand

by Philip Short

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The man who changed the course of modern France

In 1981, François Mitterrand became France's first popularly elected socialist president. By the time he completed his mandate, he had led the country for 14 years, longer than any other French head of state in modern times. Mitterrand mirrored France in all its imperfections and tragedies, its

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The man who changed the course of modern France

In 1981, François Mitterrand became France's first popularly elected socialist president. By the time he completed his mandate, he had led the country for 14 years, longer than any other French head of state in modern times. Mitterrand mirrored France in all its imperfections and tragedies, its cowardice and glory, its weakness and its strength.

In the wake of the Observatory affair (in which he orchestrated his own assassination attempt), his secretiveness and mistrust grew more pronounced, especially when details of a second family came to light; he was a mixture of "Machiavelli, Don Corleone, Casanova and the Little Prince," said his doctor.

During the German occupation, Mitterrand hedged his bets by joining Petain's Vichy government. Later in 1943, under the nom de guerre of Morland (and 30 other aliases), Mitterrand quit Vichy for the Resistance and a paramilitary organization.

He changed the ground rules of French social and political debate in ways more far-reaching and fundamental than any other modern leader before him, helping set the agenda for France and Europe for generations to come. Philip Short's A Taste for Intrigue will fill the gap and become the standard against which all other Mitterrand biographies are set.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Celebrated biographer Short (Mao: A Life) again proves himself an adept storyteller in this look at France's magnetic former president Mitterrand, bringing him back to life with a deeply intimate and intriguing history. Short leaves no cycle of the president's life uncovered, with his childhood and upbringing foreshadowing his post-war years as a Socialist Party activist and unlikely rise to the presidency in 1981. Brought up in a Catholic, conservative environment, Mitterrand's ideals were shattered during his time as a WWII soldier and later a prisoner of war. No longer able to fully defend the lifestyle he had known, he began his political career careening through the ranks of the Socialist party, secretly battling his family's ideology with a politics he grew to defend and represent. However, Mitterrand indeed lived multiple lives, and his indecisiveness was a constant factor throughout. Even in his personal life the president maintained two separate and happy relationships: one with his lifelong partner and wife, Danielle, and another with his mistress, Anne. Both supporters and opponents admitted to Mitterrand's political brilliance as well as his considerable charm, and Short's well-constructed work makes both abundantly clear. Agent: Veronique Baxter, David Higham (U.K.). (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“[Mitterrand] was an elusive shape-shifter whose goals remained unknown even to his closest aides; his legacy is one of disturbing ambiguity, an opacity for which the media called him ‘the Sphinx.' In ‘A Taste for Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of François Mitterrand,' Philip Short masterfully probes these contradictions.” —Wall Street Journal

“[An] engrossing, authoritative, and fair biography… chock-full of previously unavailable information.” —New York Review of Books

“Short understands what he has accomplished in this book, which depicts Mitterrand as a fascinating, if also deeply mysterious character.” —The Washington Post

“[A] compelling, highly accomplished biography.” —NPR

“Well-rounded… [Short is] at home with the international big picture and the arcana of French politics, but he's just as attentive to the convolutions of Mitterrand's private life.” —The American Prospect

“A balanced synthesis of a fascinating political career.” —Library Journal

“[A] comprehensive and balanced biography of one of the most important European leaders of the last century.” —Booklist

“Short's book is a masterfully written, sweeping narrative of Mitterrand's life with decisive, revealing anecdotes and a meticulous chronicling of fact that is remarkable enough to be fiction. … [This] biography is a gripping, insightful, and often entertaining account of one of Europe's most complicated and fascinating men. It's a must-read for any Francophile and enthusiast of 20th century political history.” —Popmatters.com

“Celebrated biographer Short again proves himself an adept storyteller in this look at France's magnetic former president Mitterrand, bringing him back to life with a deeply intimate and intriguing history.” —Publisher's Weekly

“An accessible biography… Short delivers a clear, useful picture of his subject and his country.” —Kirkus

“Philip Short's writing combines the tenacity of an investigative journalist, the critical insight of an historian, and the suspense of a gifted novelist. His biographies of Mao and Pol Pot showcased his ability to elucidate complex historical figures, the sources of their influence, and the multiple forces shaping their ultimately brutal exercise of power. Without compromising the integrity of his research, his style is highly accessible, inviting readers to connect our own histories to a larger shared history. On the basis of this impressive record, his new biography of Mitterrand promises first-class scholarship--and an intriguing tale.” —Vaddey Ratner, author of The New York Times bestselling In the Shadow of the Banyan

“Philip Short's new book on Francois Mitterrand is the best sort of biography--deeply informed, entirely readable, and at the level of sophistication and complexity needed for its particular subject. Like Short, I covered France as a foreign correspondent during the Mitterrand era, and I thought I knew the man. Short's fascinating book has showed me how much I didn't know, not only about Mitterrand himself but also about the fraught eras of French and European history on which he left his mark.” —Richard Bernstein, author of The Coming Conflict with China

Library Journal
François Mitterrand, the 21st president of France, whose 14-year term from 1981 to 1995 was among the longest in modern French history, was a study in contradictions. Originally a moderate conservative, he later aligned himself with the noncommunist left. He demonstrated notable leadership skills from an early age, deftly negotiating a complex geopolitical landscape. Capable of bringing together unlikely coalitions to push through social programs, he also frequently engaged in vicious squabbles with adversaries. Ambitious, charismatic, rude, duplicitous, and secretive, his legacy is one that is defined more by expediency and pragmatism than strong principles or conviction. Given his remarkably long and convoluted public career during a period of unparalleled social and economic turmoil, Mitterrand remains a worthy subject of further research. British author and journalist Short (Mao: A Life) has produced a highly detailed but readable summary of this multilayered life. Thoroughly researched and documented, the result tends more toward eventful than insightful. VERDICT General readers of political history and biography should enjoy this balanced synthesis of a fascinating political career. For a more critical analysis, readers may want to seek out Catherine Nay's The Black and the Red: François Mitterrand, the Story of an Ambition. [See Prepub Alert, 11/15/13.]—Linda Frederiksen, Washington State Univ. Lib., Vancouver

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt


Other nations have scandals. The French have affairs.

From the Dreyfus Affair, before the Great War, when the country was at loggerheads with itself over the supposed treason of a Jewish officer; to the Stavisky Affair in the 1930s, in which a politically well-connected embezzler ‘committed suicide with a bullet which someone fired at him at point-blank range’, as one newspaper gleefully put it, bringing down the government of the day; the Bazooka Affair in the 1950s, when Michel Debré, a close aide to France’s wartime leader, General Charles de Gaulle, was suspected of complicity in the attempted murder of the French army commander in Algeria; the Affair of Bokassa’s Diamonds, in the 1970s, which helped end the re-election hopes of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing; and the Clearstream Affair, twenty years later, when another French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, threatened to hang a rival ‘from a butcher’s hook’, affairs have punctuated the rhythms of French political life.

They are never fully elucidated, never satisfactorily explained, and leave an odour of malfeasance which continues to haunt the protagonists for the rest of their political careers.

Few affairs in modern French history have been as enduring and insidious as the Observatory Affair, so called because it took place near the gardens of that name in the Latin Quarter of Paris. That year, 1959, the Algerian war of independence was raging. De Gaulle had been called out of retirement by French army commanders who, infuriated by the reluctance of the civilian government to crack down decisively on a rebellion in what was then still officially part of metropolitan France, had threatened a coup d’état. He had been given emergency powers and, the previous September, a new constitution had been approved, enshrining presidential rule. The Fourth Republic, with its fragile and ephemeral parliamentary governments, was gone. France found itself catapulted into a new era of republican monarchy.

Among the few mainstream politicians who had voted against de Gaulle’s return was François Mitterrand, then among the leaders of the non-communist opposition. Mitterrand was not exactly a rising star, having held government office a dozen times since 1944, when he had become the youngest French minister since the Second Empire of Napoleon III, almost a century earlier. A gifted orator, his devastating put-downs, deceptively casual and often slightly tongue in cheek, masked an innate shyness which he went to great lengths to conceal.

Until de Gaulle’s recall, Mitterrand had been regarded, not least by himself, as a Prime Minister in waiting. Subsequently he had been marginalised as the fault line in French politics shifted. Instead of dividing Left from Right, it now separated those who wanted negotiations in Algeria from those who favoured a military solution. To diehard conservatives, who had championed the General’s return but had afterwards come to distrust his intentions, Mitterrand epitomised the decadence of the weak civilian leaderships which had sold out French Indochina and seemed to be preparing to do the same in the one imperial stronghold France had left: North Africa. His opponents attacked him as ‘anti-national’, parliamentary language for a traitor.

That autumn, Paris was alive with rumours of right-wing assassination squads being sent from Algiers by extremist settler organisations to execute political moderates. Louis Mermaz, later Speaker of the National Assembly, remembered it as ‘a sulphurous time, threats flying in all directions’. Albin Chalandon, the Gaullist party Secretary-General, spoke of a plot to overthrow the government. Certain politicians, who were judged to be particularly vulnerable, including the former Prime Minister, Pierre Mendès France, were given round-the-clock police protection. In October, one of Mitterrand’s closest friends informed him that death lists were circulating in Oran, Algeria’s second city: ‘Mitterrand’s name was listed first and Michelet (the Gaullist Justice Minister) second’. In the summer, plastic explosives were placed outside the door of his apartment but failed to detonate. His wife, Danielle, at home alone with two young children, started getting telephone calls late at night. ‘A voice would say, “Does black suit you? I hope so because soon you will wear it for your husband.” I told François, but he wouldn’t take it seriously. He said it was just cranks.’

Nevertheless, on October 14, Mitterrand asked a trusted friend, Bernard Finifter, to find him a bulletproof jacket. Finifter approached the Director of National Security at the Interior Ministry, Jean Verdier. ‘It’s a matter of life and death,’ he pleaded. But he refused to explain why he wanted it and Verdier turned him down.

The following day, a Thursday, brought more ominous developments.

The right-wing evening newspaper, Paris-Presse, led its front page with a melodramatic warning: ‘A tragedy is in the making . . . It could be for tomorrow. Already groups of killers have crossed the border from Spain. Those to be executed have been chosen . . . 18 months after [de Gaulle’s return to power], we risk seeing the outbreak of a fratricidal internal conflict.’ It had been written by a prominent Gaullist MP, who said later that his information had come from two concordant sources in Algeria and that the head of the French counter-espionage service, the DST, had confirmed it.

Mitterrand dined at home that night with Danielle and a group of friends. Afterwards with three companions, he drove to the Champs-Elysées, the great thoroughfare that points like an arrow into the heart of Paris, descending from the Arc de Triomphe to the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre. They bought Paris-Presse at a news-stand and stopped at a café, the Pam Pam, to discuss the story over a drink. ‘It seems things are coming to a head,’ Mitterrand murmured. At his suggestion they drove back to St Germain des Prés on the Left Bank, not far from his home, to have a nightcap at the Brasserie Lipp.

Lipp was, and remains today, a Parisian institution, a meeting place for politicians, philosophers, actresses and bishops, writers and celebrities, from Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre to Verlaine and Chagall. Its wood-panelled façade, belle époque floral ceramics, painted Veronese-style ceilings, and mirrors subtly tilted so that its habitués can both see and be seen, have witnessed more than a century of copious Alsatian cuisine, foaming jugs of beer (of which Marcel Proust, when not nibbling madeleines, was said to have been a devotee), flirtatious dalliances and political and literary intrigues.

Mitterrand was a regular. But on this occasion, after greeting a few acquaintances, he told his companions he felt tired and left. Within minutes, he said later, he sensed that he was being followed. Two men in a light green Renault Dauphine kept steadily behind his car. To be sure that his imagination was not playing tricks, he changed his usual route, turning left at the Senate to drive down the eastern side of the Luxembourg Gardens, past the rise that leads to the Pantheon, then southward towards the Observatory, founded in 1667 by the Sun King, Louis XIV. Whenever he slowed down, the Renault did the same.

Abruptly I turned right into the rue Auguste Comte, accelerating as I did so . . . The other car did the same and started gaining on me. It would be hard for me to explain what was going through my head at that moment, but I knew that whatever happened I had to escape my pursuers. I was familiar with the area and instinctively I veered across the road, jamming on the brakes and coming to a halt between two parked cars. I literally flew out of my seat, raced towards the [Observatory] gardens and jumped the fence, throwing myself face-down in a flower-bed. A volley of shots rang out . . . Then I saw them drive off . . . I had the impression that they gave up trying to kill me when they saw me jump out and run. They shot up the empty car in order to be able to say to their bosses, ‘We did it. But there were unforeseen circumstances.’

Mitterrand’s car, a blue Peugeot saloon, had seven bullet holes, which the police established had been fired from a Sten gun.

When he finally got back to his apartment, long after midnight, Danielle found him ‘shattered . . . He was always reserved – not the kind of man to throw himself into his wife’s arms, announcing “I’ve just escaped death!” . . . But that night he was completely closed in on himself. I couldn’t even talk to him. He just stayed in his room.’

Expressions of sympathy poured in from all sides. To many it was a sign that the ultras, as the diehard nationalists were called, were losing patience with de Gaulle’s regime. Mitterrand had been targeted not because of his liberal views but as a shot across the bows of the government, a warning to the administration that the French settlers in Algeria and their extremist leaders would not sit idly by if the authorities tried to abandon them.

A week later came the coup de théâtre.

On October 22, a former MP named Robert Pesquet, who had represented an extreme right-wing party in parliament until the year before, informed the investigating magistrate that the assassination attempt had been faked.

Mitterrand, he said, had approached him earlier that month with a proposal that he simulate an attack ‘in order to provoke the destruction of the ultras and their organisations’. In return, Mitterrand had promised to help him relaunch his political career. Pesquet said he had played along with the subterfuge because, as a supporter of French rule in Algeria, he wanted to expose Mitterrand as a liar in order to discredit him, and all those like him, who favoured negotiating with the rebels. He had staged the shooting himself with an accomplice, he added, but in such a way as to ensure that nobody would be hurt.

Summoned by the magistrate to explain himself, Mitterrand denied everything. He said he had encountered Pesquet by chance two weeks earlier and the latter had repeatedly telephoned, asking to see him again. When eventually he agreed to a meeting, on October 14, Pesquet told him that he was linked to a terrorist group which had put Mitterrand on a blacklist to be killed. The former MP had sworn him to secrecy, saying that if his associates learnt that he had betrayed them his own life and the lives of his family would be in danger. He had come to warn Mitterrand, he added, because, whatever their differences about Algeria, he wanted no part in murder. The following afternoon, Mitterrand told the magistrate, Pesquet had contacted him again to tell him the attack was imminent and promising that if he had more information, he would wait for Mitterrand at Lipp that night. But there had been no sign of Pesquet at the brasserie and the next thing he knew his car was being followed.

To the magistrate’s inevitable question, ‘Why didn’t you go to the police?’, Mitterrand replied that he had given his word and did not intend to break it.*

There matters might have rested. Pesquet had a history of shady deals that had caused him earlier brushes with the law. Mitterrand kept repeating to his friends, ‘It’s his word against mine.’

But Pesquet had been cunning.

Six hours before the attack, he had sent a letter to himself at a poste restante address describing in detail what was to happen. A bailiff accompanied him when he collected it and attested to the time on the postmark. For the press and for public opinion, it followed that Pesquet must be telling the truth. The only possible explanation was that he and Mitterrand had concocted the whole thing together. Overnight, from having been a hero, Mitterrand became a bad joke; at best a naïve dupe, at worst an incompetent trickster whose machinations had come unstuck, deserving, as one newspaper put it, ‘not hate, but a certain contempt’.

The trap, for trap it was, had been diabolically set.

Mitterrand in the late 1950s was a savvy, seasoned politician with a national reputation. A serial seducer, with countless conquests to his name, a mark in France not of inconstancy but of virility and savoir-faire, he was controversial, charismatic and secretive. That he could have been bamboozled by an adventurer like Pesquet seemed totally out of character. André Bettencourt, who had known him since they were students together, was quoted in the press describing his ‘instinctive distrustfulness and sang-froid’. Mitterrand normally weighed to a nicety the pros and cons of every step he took. Yet he had walked blindly into an ambush which even a neophyte should have seen.

André Rousselet, a long-time member of Mitterrand’s inner circle, felt that in the days after Pesquet’s revelations, he was close to suicide. François Dalle, a friend since the 1930s, thought the same: ‘for a week I spent every day with him, because I wanted to avoid a disaster’. Georges Beauchamp, a colleague from the Resistance, feared a repeat of the Salengro Affair, when, in 1936, a minister in the Popular Front government had killed himself after a campaign of calumny. ‘Salengro was on all our minds,’ said Roland Dumas, later French Foreign Minister. ‘With hindsight, I don’t think he would have done it . . . But back then I wasn’t so sure.’

Mitterrand believed that his career was finished and that he would never recover. ‘He was convinced of it,’ a colleague recalled. ‘I remember going out for a walk with him. He thought it was all over.’ That weekend was his forty-third birthday. Danielle, for the first time since their marriage, saw him weakened. ‘I discovered that he was human that day. He was staring into an abyss. For nights on end he paced up and down in the apartment, trying to figure out what to do. It became an obsession.’ Years later he spoke of feeling ‘as though I were at the bottom of a well’.

Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, who edited the progressive weekly, l’Express, remembered a meeting in his office where Mitterrand, normally the most private and unemotional of men, ‘broke down and cried like a baby’. With a handful of exceptions, Servan-Schreiber among them, his political friends abandoned him. Even Henri Frenay, a wartime Gaullist minister who was godfather to Mitterrand’s son, Gilbert, told Danielle when she sought his help that he ‘didn’t want to get involved’.

Salvation, of a kind, came in November, when it was disclosed that, during the summer, Pesquet had approached Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury, a Centre-Right leader and former Prime Minister whose views on Algeria were more conservative than Mitterrand’s, with a similar claim that he was to be targeted for assassination. Bourgès, two years older and a more down-to-earth, phlegmatic character, had wisely refused to have anything to do with him. De Gaulle’s government had known this for weeks but had kept quiet so as to cause Mitterrand the maximum political damage.

The disclosure fatally undermined his opponents’ case against him. If Pesquet had tried earlier to ensnare others, Mitterrand could no longer be accused of having initiated the plot himself. Like a soufflé that collapses once the hot air inside cools, the Observatory Affair began to look like the political silliness it was. Who after all could seriously believe that Mitterrand would turn to a virtual unknown, a political opponent to boot, to simulate an attempt on his life, in which real bullets would be used, at the risk of getting himself killed?† Had he wished to fake a murder attempt, he had plenty of trusted friends from the Resistance who would have been only too glad to help him.

Yet Pesquet’s letter, describing exactly how the attack would be mounted, was impossible to explain away. In parliament, Mitterrand insisted ‘there was nothing he could not have known or guessed . . . If its contents had not conformed to the use that he wished to make of it, it would never have been divulged.’ It was a good try, but it fell short. The letter included details which could only have been agreed in advance.

Fifty years later, Mitterrand’s brother, Jacques, then dying of cancer, explained what had really happened. ‘He screwed himself completely,’ Jacques said. ‘It was a trap with many levels. He thought he could benefit from it, yes . . . he thought he could turn it to his own advantage. But in fact he trapped himself.’ Pesquet, he said, had begged Mitterrand to help him. He seemed terrified and claimed that he risked being killed if he did not show his bosses that he had at least attempted an attack. It was an approach well calculated to appeal to what André Rousselet called the ‘romanesque’ side of Mitterrand’s nature. When Pesquet insisted that to go to the police would put him in mortal danger, Mitterrand decided to play along. It was a gamble which, if it succeeded, would put him back in the forefront of French political life. ‘At that time,’ François Dalle remembered, ‘no one was talking about him. [De Gaulle was in the spotlight.] Mitterrand needed people to talk about him . . . He was no longer centre stage. So he committed this enormous, fantastic piece of stupidity.’

The Observatory Affair would remain an albatross around François Mitterrand’s neck for the rest of his life and beyond. Most French people, on the Left as well as the Right, believe to this day that he instigated the attack himself. In later years, he refused point-blank to discuss it. The result, as Jacques acknowledged, was that he was not believed. ‘He never explained completely what had happened. Had he done so, the affair would have been over. But he didn’t.’ He did not because he could not without admitting that he had lied. That was the beauty of it. Once the trap had closed, there was no way he could ever escape.

The autumn of 1959 was a watershed in Mitterrand’s career. As Danielle put it, shortly before her death, ‘there was “before” the Observatory, and “after”.’

Until then, politically at least, he had had a charmed existence. While still in his thirties, he had held two of the highest posts in government as Interior and Justice Minister. After de Gaulle’s return, he and Mendès France had led the challenge from the Left. Now his career was in ruins: everything had to be rebuilt.

The identity of those who had tried to frame him, manipulating Pesquet from behind the scenes, was never formally established. But the fetid whiff of intrigue, of conspiracies and cover-ups, lingered long after. Although Mitterrand was able, with difficulty, to retain a seat in parliament, he became the whipping boy of the Right, which excoriated him as a symbol of all that it despised. ‘Whenever he got up to speak,’ Rousselet recalled, ‘his opponents would chant, “Pesquet! Pesquet!” . . .’

Old accusations, which he had thought long since laid to rest, were raked up anew. As a student in the 1930s, had he not joined a terrorist group, the Secret Organisation for Revolutionary Action, known as La Cagoule (The Hood)? His role in the Resistance was trashed. Had he not worked at Vichy for the government of Marshal Pétain, which collaborated with Hitler? Had not Pétain awarded him the francisque, the Marshal’s personal decoration?

Mitterrand had ready answers: half the leaders of the Resistance had worked for Vichy at one time or another, as had many of de Gaulle’s own ministers; the francisque had been a cover approved by de Gaulle’s aides in London. The General himself had described Mitterrand as one of a handful of ‘our representatives’ responsible for keeping him informed about developments inside France. But that was not what his opponents wished to hear. The orthodox version of wartime history was written in black and white, with no place for shades of grey. It held that the majority of the French people had been patriots; Vichy, a nest of traitors. That the reality might have been more complicated has never been widely accepted in France. In the early 1960s, it was pointless even to try to discuss it.

Politics, however, like other forms of human endeavour, has its arsenal of surprises.

Six years later, in 1965, the same François Mitterrand whose name had been dragged through the mud and whose future had been written off by all but a tiny handful of loyalists, achieved a resounding triumph in the first direct presidential election of the new Fifth Republic. De Gaulle’s towering stature at that time meant there was never any possibility of an opposition victory. Mitterrand’s achievement was to force him into the humiliation of a run-off, in which the challenger received an unhoped-for 45 per cent of the vote. In 1981, he became France’s first popularly elected socialist president, going on to win a second term. By the time he completed his mandate, he had led the country for fourteen years, longer than any other French Head of State in modern times, establishing himself in the eyes of French people of all political persuasions as being with Charles de Gaulle one of the two defining leaders of twentieth-century France.

They were strange bedfellows.

De Gaulle, the wartime hero, gave France back its pride after the Nazi Occupation, ended the war in Algeria and took the first, essential steps towards reconciliation with Germany and the making of post-war Europe. Mitterrand, in peacetime, transformed France into a modern democratic state, legitimised the Left as a responsible voice in the nation’s political affairs and, together with Helmut Kohl, pushed Europe towards political union, with a common currency and a reunified Germany anchored firmly in the West.

One was an austere, granite monument of a man, the self-appointed guardian of French honour, as strict with others as with himself and displaying sovereign contempt for all whose moral standards did not meet his own exacting conception of how men should behave. The other was an enigma, a bourgeois intellectual from a solidly right-wing background capable of firing a left-wing crowd into a fervour of political enthusiasm, an introverted, inspiring figure who transcended his origins and culture to build a political career on the back of a working class with whom he had almost nothing in common.

De Gaulle was a good Catholic, devoted husband and father (of a daughter with Down’s syndrome), the incarnation of respectability. Mitterrand was a lapsed Catholic who spent years in a ménage à trois and then maintained two homes and two families, one legitimate, the other adulterine.

They were chalk and cheese and, not surprisingly, allergic to each other. But it was an antipathy based on respect. De Gaulle was twenty-five years older than Mitterrand, died twenty-five years before him and left no written record of how he viewed his young challenger. To Mitterrand, de Gaulle represented ‘mastery over oneself, which meant mastery over history’. After the General’s death, he compared him to Henri IV, the great sixteenth-century King who ended the Wars of Religion, and Cardinal Richelieu, Chief Minister to his son, Louis XIII, who laid the foundations of modern Western statecraft. It was an extraordinary tribute to a man who, for most of his career, had been his arch-enemy. Yet the panegyric was tempered by distance. Late in life he penned an appreciation of de Gaulle’s ‘astonishing sureness of judgement’:

With him, one was in History. One lived it. One made it. I saw that 
and . . . I admired [him] for being able to rule like that. But I was not tempted to join him politically . . . I could have done so . . . But with de Gaulle there was a certain militarism, a tone which did not suit me . . .

De Gaulle projected a vision of French grandeur. Mitterrand mirrored France in all its imperfections, its turpitudes and tragedies, its cowardice and glory, its weakness and its strength. Both men changed their country profoundly, but in profoundly different ways. De Gaulle reflected its ambitions; Mitterrand, its reality.

They also had much in common. A generation apart, both had been taken prisoner: de Gaulle in the First World War, Mitterrand in the Second. De Gaulle tried repeatedly to escape, but each time was recaptured; Mitterrand succeeded. Both rebelled: de Gaulle against the military hierarchy, Mitterrand against his class; yet even there, the distinction was perhaps less than it seemed. ‘De Gaulle,’ Mitterrand wrote, ‘dared to deny his social class by an act of indiscipline, . . . by breaking with the established order on June 18 1940 . . . when that established order betrayed [his country]’.

Both men radiated a natural authority over those around them. A fellow PoW wrote of de Gaulle in 1917: ‘Under a simple, sometimes familiar exterior, he knew how to maintain a distance. All the other [officers] used the informal “tu” when they talked among themselves. No one ever used “tu” to de Gaulle.’ The same could have been written of Mitterrand. No one used ‘tu’ to him either.

Both men had an inner solitude, a part of their being that was locked, inaccessible to others, which is one of the characteristics of uncommon leaders everywhere. De Gaulle was nicknamed the Connétable, or Supreme Commander; Mitterrand, the Sphinx. Both spent long years in the wilderness, de Gaulle in the 1950s, Mitterrand a decade later. Both used unhesitatingly every weapon in the political armoury. De Gaulle was portrayed as a model of political rectitude but employed a private army of thugs to intimidate opponents, special courts to stifle dissent and state controls on radio and television to inhibit democratic debate. Mitterrand ended those practices, but as President created an eavesdropping unit to spy on those rash enough to take an interest in his complicated private life.

De Gaulle, like Mitterrand, was a master of the oracular phrase. In Algiers in June 1958, he famously assured French settlers, ‘Je vous ai compris!’ (‘I have understood you’), words greeted with tumultuous applause. By then he had already decided that the settlers had no future and would have to be abandoned. It would take them another year to realise that his meaning was not what they thought. For de Gaulle such ambiguity was discretionary. For Mitterrand it was systemic. Laurent Fabius, his Prime Minister in the 1980s, wrote perceptively that ‘the key to Mitterrand’s personality, to his extraordinary success, to his [political] longevity and his energy, the key to the fascination which he exerted on others . . . was his staggering and quite exceptional ambivalence . . . a deep-seated, metaphysical ambivalence which made him view everything as both itself and its opposite, every person as both good and bad, every situation as containing the seeds of both tragedy and hope’.

The French statesman Mitterrand most admired was the seventeenth-century Cardinal Mazarin, preceptor and First Minister of Louis XIV, after whom he named his daughter, Mazarine. Much of what the cardinal wrote in his Breviary for Politicians could be taken as a vade mecum for Mitterrand himself:

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 the 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 the saying which fitted him best he attributed to Mazarin’s rival, the Cardinal de Retz: ‘if you set aside ambiguity, it is always to your own detriment.’

In Mitterrand’s later years, in the wake of the Observatory Affair, his secretiveness and mistrust grew more pronounced. Rousselet said the affair ‘armour-plated him’: he would never allow his instincts to trip him up again.

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 anyone else’s ‘-ism’ to dictate to him what he should think.

Mitterrand’s ambiguity was both a strength and a weakness. The ability to see two sides of every issue prevented him from becoming sectarian and provided a framework for coexistence when, in the 1980s, the socialists lost their parliamentary majority and, for the first time in French history, a president from one political camp had to work with a legislature from another.

De Gaulle would have resigned. Mitterrand’s predecessor, Giscard d’Estaing, had threatened to leave Paris and spend the rest of his term of office ‘inaugurating chrysanthemums’ at the Castle of Rambouillet. Mitterrand made the system work. Cohabitation, as it was called, became briefly the new norm. But the same mixture of agility and patience that allowed Mitterrand to fashion compromises and finesse domestic crises inspired in both allies and adversaries wariness and suspicion.

Not least of the ironies of Mitterrand’s rule was that, having in opposition denounced the institutions of the Fifth Republic as a ‘permanent coup d’état’, and the manner in which de Gaulle utilised them as an abuse of personal power, he found, once in office himself, that they fitted him like a glove, and in the decade and a half he was President opposed any attempt to change them. They gave him greater powers over his own country than any other Western leader and, like his august predecessor, he used them to the full.

In the mythology of contemporary France, de Gaulle was the man who said no: No to Pétain, No to NATO, No to Britain in the European Community. Mitterrand could say no, too: ‘no to de Gaulle, no to the Communists, no to his cancer, no to death,’ wrote Franz-Olivier Giesbert. But he said it differently. ‘Even as he battled against his final illness,’ Giesbert wrote, ‘he never lost the look of a mischievous child.’ Where de Gaulle had been a monolith, Mitterrand was a mystery. His doctor, in the last months of his life, told him he was a mixture of ‘Machiavelli, Don Corleone, Casanova and the Little Prince’. When Mitterrand enquired, ‘in what proportions?’, the physician replied prudently: ‘That depends on which day.’

François Mitterrand was a sensualist, an aesthete, a bookworm, a quicksilver, complicated man, by turns reckless and prudent, passionate and withdrawn, calculating and intuitive, gifted with unusual intellect and political acumen. He loved literature as much as politics and at one time dreamed of becoming a writer, but had the good sense to recognise that his talents lay elsewhere. So he ‘wrote’ the story of his life in actions rather than words. It is a narrative which, like his character, is frequently opaque. De Gaulle took France by the scruff of the neck and, with a mixture of flattery and fetters, discipline and self-denial, welded it back together again. Georges Clemenceau, ‘the Tiger’, stiffened French spines during the First World War (and in company with Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson prepared the ground for the Second). Mitterrand did nothing comparable. His life mirrored the contradictions and compromises of the times in which he lived. Yet he changed the ground rules of French social and political debate in ways more far-reaching and fundamental than any other modern leader before him, setting the agenda for France, and helping to shape that of Europe, for a generation to come. It is an agenda to which the French, like other Europeans, are still learning to adjust.

* In Mitterrand’s defence, Pierre Mendès France disclosed shortly afterwards that he had been placed in an identical dilemma two years earlier when, following an assassination attempt which injured his bodyguard, a member of the group responsible had come to warn him that another attempt was being planned. ‘I would have regarded it as utterly contemptible to put in danger the life of [that] man,’ he said. If Mitterrand was at fault for not alerting the authorities, Mendès said, he had been equally so, ‘and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again’.

† Apart from two groups of neo-Grecian statuary on stone plinths in the centre of the gardens, the area offers no cover. When the police staged a reconstruction of the attack, Mitterrand offered to re-enact his role. The magistrate refused, saying that with live fire it was too dangerous.

Copyright © 2014 by Philip Short

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Meet the Author

Philip Short is the author of several books, among them the definitive biographies Mao: A Life and Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. He has been a foreign correspondent for The Times (London), The Economist, and the BBC in Uganda, Moscow, China, and Washington, D.C.

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