Régis Debray recalls friendship and disillusionment with François Mitterrand, and unravels the political psychology of a man whose inconsistencies helped unite a fractious countryby Régis Debray / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Even before François Mitterrand stepped down as president last year, a new literary competition-cum-parlour game had been invented in France. It consisted of painting a word portrait of the president. All the country’s literary lions, spurred on by Le Grand Amour, a dazzling offering by Goncourt prize-winner Eric Orsenna, felt bound to spew out their own “Mitterrand enigma.” After all, it had been running for 14 years.
And now it’s my turn. But surely the bottom of this barrel has been scraped by now; all I can add are a few bits and pieces. But there are some pretty solid bits, like the particles in suspension in wine that leave a sediment after fermentation. And in my cellar of memories, the sour taste diminishes as the years go by.
By what right do I contribute? I have a few bits of paper, and the benefit of hindsight. But from 1981 to 1988 I was a favoured member of Mitterand’s kitchen cabinet. I was not an official adviser, privy to affairs of state on a daily basis. Rather I was one of those who saw the head of state whenever they felt like it, to talk about anything. We were the “musketeers,” as the gossip columnists put it.
Time has now soothed my resentments and I can look back with a mixture of amusement and regret. For many years-though I never understood why-Mitterrand viewed me with indulgence. It was mutual. Although we fell out ideologically at the beginning of his second term, this didn’t diminish the affection. I was drawn to him by his elegance and bravery, (despite his philandering). His indulgence towards me was nothing compared to the fatherly indulgence he showed towards Laurent Fabius, Jack Lang or Jacques Attali-his spiritual sons. And my affection for him wasn’t that of a lifelong companion, but the sort felt by friends who enjoy periods of complicity, but have little in common-except that neither of them will disown the other. So, unlike those who owed him their careers and never dared to speak out when they should have done, I am not tempted by revenge now.
It says a lot about the nature of the man and his age, that of all of France’s many monarchs, no one else has spent so much time giving a helping hand to those attempting to paint his portrait, in words or pictures. Mitterrand, a man of letters, became at the end of his life a star of the visual media, baring his soul on our screens-parading his innermost self in an endless string of films, interviews, and conversations.
Where de Gaulle used to talk about la France, Mitterrand talked about himself. De Gaulle didn’t interest de Gaulle. His inner life-if he had one-was irrelevant. Mitterrand inspired confidence-he was one of us. He may have been head of state but he was just as concerned about himself as any Jacques, Jean or Pierre. When de Gaulle brought 30 years of French history to a close in 1969, he did so with a two-sentence press release, then went back home without giving a single interview or making a single television appearance. Starting in 1994, Mitterrand dragged out his farewell ceremony for the whole year, turning an historical chronicle into a personal diary. He interested us in his family life, his youth, the people he met, his old friends. He gradually prepared the ground for his journey to the Pantheon, smoothing over blemishes, picking his witnesses, screening his friends, putting up smokescreen after smokescreen. He even stooped to authorising his former special adviser to perform the unethical and illegal act of photocopying state secrets.
He would talk openly and sincerely about his impending death, his pain, the afterlife; and let the media take his temperature over and over again. “How are you feeling, Monsieur le Pr?dent?” “How do you feel, knowing you’re close to death?” The sacredness of the Republic and the office of president had been so demeaned that everyone-almost everyone-found this obscene line of questioning natural. It allowed Mitterrand a successful exit.
I had thrown in my lot with the state in 1981, in the naive belief that democratic institutions are there, in Hannah Arendt’s words, to avoid “the futile quality of individual lives.” I had believed that this elevation to a higher plane was the purpose of the rule of law-to depersonalise both obedience and authority. But I soon revised this judgement when I saw how the principle was warped by television, and the president’s predilection for public introspection. The longer the reign went on, the more shameless the striptease became. There he was-a cocky Don Juan with one foot in the grave, defying morality, the nation and his friends, as he joined in this striptease with a provocatively smug expression.
Like a magnifying glass whose power increases with age, a long reign magnifies a small lapse into a flaw, a flaw into a vice, and eventually into a crisis of confidence. We are all secretive, manipulative, hypocritical and the rest. But we can keep our flaws well out of sight because none of us have had to rule the country for longer than Napoleon did. Public figures in the televisual age have their private lives “nationalised”-witticisms, love letters, the lot.
Why did I throw in my lot for ten years, risking my reputation, for this man who wasn’t my type at all? Since egotism is the issue here, I’m entitled to give an answer, especially as several million of us asked ourselves just that, in our different ways.
If I hadn’t spent some time in exile, I would never have set my cap at General de Gaulle’s old enemy, would never have thought he was a dazzling blend of Jean Jaur? and de Gaulle. When I came back from Allende’s Chile in early 1973, a mutual female friend took me to see him. He was speaking at some local election meeting in Pau. What I found was a social-Catholic, an orator using rich, sometimes grandiloquent language, who became in the course of the evening a pithy and scathing talker, with bewildering swings from seriousness to sarcasm.
The next morning he took me in his car on a three day tour of south-west France. We were light-hearted and greeted with laughter and affection everywhere we went. I discovered for the first time a provincial France that I had only read about in books. I had been feeling so cruelly deprived of French things that I only had to see a red-and-white checked tablecloth or a church steeple with a weathercock, and I felt I’d reached the Promised Land.
Then one day in September 1994 I saw Mitterrand at the Ecole Normale Sup?eure in Paris, giving a talk to commemorate the college’s bicentenary. Twenty years had passed. Looking at that elderly gentleman, his face ravaged by pain, I could see no trace of the secret smuggler across political frontiers whom I had worshipped. Not that Mitterrand himself had changed. But the covering of snow had melted.
In the militant crush, amid the good-natured cheekiness that prevailed during left wing political rallies, before the left lost its faith towards the end of the 1970s, our champion would stand aloof, maintaining a caustic and icy composure in the midst of the hubbub. It is hard to say whether this stemmed from natural shyness or his “class origins.” Nothing absurd about that-L? Blum suffered from the same affliction. Indeed, the progressive movement in France has always been headed by grands bourgeois busy betraying their class. I was on familiar ground. This handicap of birth I knew well enough to excuse in others. In any case, Mitterrand made no secret of possessing an ego which he wasn’t about to surrender to a new cause. There was no danger of his succumbing to hysteria. This was a good omen. At last, I thought, a bourgeois who plays fair and doesn’t cheat on the plebs.
Last year Paul Thibaud, a gifted critic of Mitterrand, commented: “The French realise that the only cause for his haughtiness was an all-consuming and totally destructive concept of self.” But this is only half-true. Without the other half, the adventurer whose new journey began at the Socialist party congress in Epinay in 1971 would have ended up as just any old minister. Mitterrand’s self-image was not “all-consuming and destructive,” but attractive and even charming. People who are doctrinaire cling to their own image and try to organise the world around an obsession with the self. Inflexible self-centredness produces people who are paranoid in a dull way-despots in the classic mould. Mitterrand was an egocentric, but an obliging and productive one, because he never made his ego a dogma, but opened it up to all.
Mitterrand’s oeuvre was himself, and he invented his heroes accordingly, all of them different, but presenting a united front. There was the Iron Cross holder, the P?inist, the Giraudist, the Gaullist, the advocate of a third political force, the anti-Communist, the authoritarian anti-capitalist, the indulgent liberal, the pro-European-a holy alliance.
A novelist keeps his feelings under control; he doesn’t identify with his characters. Because he is all of them at once, he isn’t any of them, and all of them express themselves, when their turn comes, with their own little tics, their own accent, their own vocabulary. A good fiction writer is always sincere, because he adopts the convictions of his many alter egos. As a result, each reader can identify with a particular character, depending on his or her own past and elective affinities. But this does not mean that the other characters are adversely affected. The novel of Mitterand’s life was written by all of us. If it was based on a “lie,” we all played our parts in it.
Every party activist, every collaborator-indeed, every voter was able to fit his or her own story into a bit of Mitterrand’s life, and project their own personal film on to a screen that was conveniently flexible. This many-sided mirror that Mitterrand managed to fashion out of the series of lives he had lived enabled all of us to blend together our narcissistic attitudes, both individual and social, and add them to his own. As a result he was able, in the 1981 presidential election, to break through the 50 per cent barrier. And so this egotist managed to collectivise the enjoyment of power. On his ever-changing screen there was room for virtually all our dreams, tales and egos, as generation followed generation, from the “L’ Etat Fran?s,” to the early joint-stock company, not forgetting the “R?blique Consulaire” and social democracy. Everyone could have their own international scenario-protecting the west, defending Israel, the Atlantic alliance, aid for the third world and so on: not l’Etat, c’est moi, but Moi, c’est vous and Lui, c’est nous. Through this unifying mechanism, Mitterrand was able, as early as 1971, to bring together under his flag Old Marxists and New Californians; then, when he was elected president in 1981, to hitch to his chariot both pallid, uptight militants and others who were bronzed and outgoing; and in 1988, when he was up for re-election, he was able to bring together in the “Mitterrand generation” both trendy anti-racists and nostalgic P?inists.
The extraordinary thing about this ordinary man is that he combined a massive ego with such a malleable, easily led outer persona. Hence his success in politics. The same rule of thumb applies to political leaders in most democracies: the leader’s body, like the body politic, is heterogeneous. France is not a single entity. Or if it is starting to become one, it wasn’t one 30 years ago. Given that differing affiliations and interests exist side by side in any population, to be elected by over 50 per cent of your compatriots, you have no choice but to pull the wool over the eyes of a good 33 per cent of them-that is at least half of your own side. The really smart thing to do is to pull off a “rotating third,” so that the people who are disappointed in the morning have had their minds put at rest by the evening-and vice versa. We all know the maxim: either politicians let down the voters or they let down the country. Mitterrand alternated between the two. Everyone, right across the political spectrum, felt at different times that their sensibilities had been taken into account, humoured or betrayed.
People make too much of Mitterrand’s cynicism and lack of conviction. He complained on several occasions, with justification, that no one had believed him when he professed his conviction in what he was doing. Can he really be blamed if his half-century was so tortuous?
He espoused the vagaries and currents of his time with such sincerity that he simply couldn’t turn back to express contrition. The only problem was that when he embraced a new conviction, it didn’t drive out the old one. They piled up one on top of the other, like the generations in an age pyramid.
In 1958, having started off as a right wing anti-Gaullist, he recycled an earlier creed to become a left wing anti-Gaullist. But he didn’t change his networks or his reflexes. He acted as if he was building a new house by recycling the materials from his previous one, or using the same characters to write a new novel. Looking back upon his life, you find yourself racing through the 20th century-and reading a fine 19th century novel ?la Balzac, educative and full of disillusion. An adventure story maybe? Yes, provided we take “adventure” in its full meaning.
To activists, what counts is the end. They themselves are just means. But to adventurers, the end is less important. Adventurers cultivate a critical attitude. Activists work in a disciplined fashion towards an order that is open to everyone. There is no denying that Mitterrand was never hooked on one particular cause. But thanks to his tolerant attitude to other people’s illusions, his openness to the ends that were thrown up by each period, he was able to invent a new player on the political stage: l’aventurier positif.
This piece first appeared in Le Monde