A new biography of François Mitterrand shows how a man from a right-wing bourgeois background became the saviour of the French leftby Jonathan Derbyshire / October 17, 2013 / Leave a comment
Mitterrand: A Study in Ambiguity by Philip Short (Bodley Head, £30)
In his magisterial history of the French left, the journalist Jacques Julliard tells an amusing story about a meeting that he arranged, some time in the early 1970s, between François Mitterrand, then First Secretary of the Socialist Party (PS), and Günter Grass, who’d been an advisor to the German Chancellor, Willy Brandt. Grass was expatiating on the need for a “return to Bernstein,” which puzzled Mitterrand. He wondered why the German novelist should be taking such an interest in Henri Bernstein, a popular French playwright of the interwar years for whom he felt mostly disdain.
As discreetly as he could, Julliard told Mitterrand that Grass was in fact talking about Eduard Bernstein, the former associate of Marx and Engels who, in the early 20th century, became the intellectual progenitor of revisionist social democracy.
The point of the story is to show how unfamiliar Mitterrand was with the “family traditions” of the left. Unlike his great rival for the leadership of the non-Communist left in the 1950s and 60s, Pierre Mendès France, Mitterrand was not born a man of the left; he had to become one. Philip Short’s extremely thorough new biography is designed to show how this “bourgeois intellectual from a solidly right-wing background” was able to save the French left from itself and become, in 1981, the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic.
Short’s subtitle is “A Study in Ambiguity,” and Mitterrand’s rare sinuousness, temperamental as well as ideological, is the leitmotif of the book. The satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné described Mitterrand, during his first run for President in 1965, as “so labyrinthine that he gets lost in his own diversions.” Laurent Fabius, Mitterrand’s dauphin who served under him as Prime Minister, attested to his “deep-seated metaphysical ambivalence” (not a phrase you can imagine one British politician uttering about another). Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist Prime Minister with whom Mitterrand was forced to endure an intermittently harmonious “cohabitation” between 1986 and 1988, advised a colleague to “never let Mitterrand impress you” and then exclaimed, with a mixture of frustration and admiration: “What an artist!”
Then there are Mitterrand’s more straightforward deceptions—the “Observatory affair” of 1959, for example, when he was accused of faking an attempt on his life by French Algerian extremists (the suspicion that Mitterrand set the whole thing up lingers to this day); the declaring of…