A Taste for Intrigue: the Multiple Lives of Francois Mitterrand
By Philip Short
Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Francois Mitterrand (1916 – 1996) was the longest-serving President of France’s Fifth Republic. He was a man with a voracious appetite for literature, women, and politics. In the Socialist Party, he characterized himself in opposition to Charles De Gaulle and was involved in the Observatory Affair, a strange political scandal. His doctor said he was a mixture of “Machiavelli, Don Corleone, Casanova, and the Little Prince.” Philip Short’s biography, A Taste for Intrigue: the Multiple Lives of Francois Mitterrand investigates the ambiguities, contradictions, scandals, and achievements that created Mitterrand’s political personality.
As a teenager, I was vaguely aware of Francois Mitterrand. I graduated high school in 1996, so I heard the name Mitterrand mentioned in passing with various news stories and in newspaper articles. In my own individual memory, Mitterrand was a supporting player next to iconic political figures like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, and Mikhail Gorbachev. “Oh yeah, the French guy,” would have been the extent of my knowledge on France and French politics. It is only through happy coincidence that I read Short’s biography alongside Paul Murray Kendall’s biography of another manipulative and misunderstood French leader, Louis XI: the Universal Spider.
Before diving into the content of Short’s biography, I present you with a little outline of modern French history. The art of narrative history is the fine balance between a clinical listing of names and dates and fashioning a compelling storyline for the reader to follow. It is also instrumental in understanding Mitterrand’s place in regards to his conflicts with De Gaulle and Franco-German reconciliation.
The Third Republic (1870 – 1940) began and ended in defeats. In 1870, France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. Through a series of wars, the loose confederation of German states united into the modern German nation-state. To wind the clock back further, the German Confederation was a shambolic political assemblage stitched together from the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire that Napoleon shattered in his drive to conquer Europe. Back in 1870, France endured a bloody civil war between those loyal to Emperor Napoleon III and those siding with the French Commune. The Third Republic lasted until the German conquered the northern and western flanks of France.
Vichy France (1940 – 1945) was ruled by Marshal Philippe Petain, a hero from the First World War. This rump state saw itself as Free France versus German-occupied France. In 1942, Germany occupied the whole of France. France’s defeat in the Second World War would be a wound that take decades to heal. When Liberation came in 1945, Charles De Gaulle created a political mythology that simplified (and suppressed) the ambiguous nature of Vichy France.
The Fourth Republic (1947 – 1958) was a slow motion catastrophe. With a weak executive and a revolving cavalcade of Prime Ministers, it grew from the ashes of defeat and an incipient civil war following Liberation. On top of this, the government had to deal with the wave of decolonization, first in Indochina and then in French North Africa. The worst came from the Algerian War, where both sides committed atrocities and the ultra-nationalist OAS (Secret Army Organization) almost toppled the regime in a coup d’etat.
The Fifth Republic (1958 – Present) is an exact opposite of The Fourth Republic. With one of the strongest executive positions in modern Europe, the President acts as a kind of “republican monarch.” The President can call snap elections, appoint the Prime Minister, and lacks a truly independent judiciary. Until recently, the President embodies the ruling party. Unlike the United States or Great Britain, French political culture involves an alphabet soup of short-lived political parties. (Short makes this comprehensible with a glossary and illuminating footnotes.) French political parties exist as platforms for the candidate. There is a lot of merging and fracturing, which can get confusing at times. When Mitterrand was in office, it was the first time there was a Prime Minister from the opposition party. This was called cohabitation.
One final note: Regarding Communism, France has a long history of Communism that may baffle some readers. (It baffled the Reagan White House and the Republican Party, a bastion of anti-intellectual anti-communism.) Karl Marx wrote about the Paris Commune and the Communist Party remains a legitimate party within a democratic multiparty system.
Francois Mitterrand was born into a wealthy middle-class family in Jarnac. Raised a devout Catholic, he was an outsider, since his family made vinegar in a region famous for its Cognac. The cognacquiers were usually Protestant and British-owned. Because of his upbringing, he associated himself with the far Right and certain anti-Semitic elements at the university. But Short points out that Mitterrand himself was not anti-Semitic and, to a certain extent, racially tolerant. His views transformed when he was captured as a prisoner-of-war during the Second World War. His experiences in the camps infused a more egalitarian spirit and brought him closer to the Socialist political worldview.
Mitterrand wasn’t without his faults. Throughout his political career and personal life, we get to see them. He was haughty, intellectually cold, a womanizer, and a hesitant introvert. Throughout his life he loved books and literature. Realizing he had no literary talent, he went into politics. One can see these literary pretensions in the transcripts of his speeches and conversations. His perpetual hesitancy in decision making was coupled with a celebutante’s disregard for punctuality. His womanizing contrasted his personal feelings about nudity. Even when he strolled on the beach, he kept his shoes and socks on.
During his long political career, he had a second family. Unlike US politics, it was customary to keep a politician’s personal life out of the newspapers. Despite the stereotypes associated with French culture – the libertinism, the topless beaches, the short work week, etc. – this is also a staunchly Catholic country. So families and mothers are important. Only in his final days was Mitterrand’s second family disclosed to the public, although it had been an open secret for decades among the political classes.
Finally, Mitterrand’s political life was one of wild contradictions and shark-like ambition. He worked in Vichy France in the department of prisoners-of-war. Short chronicles Mitterrand’s experiences working with the “Sword and Shield.” Like a hedge fund manager, he covered all his bases. Prior to the German occupation of 1942, Vichy France existed as The Shield, preserving France’s sovereignty. The Resistance worked as The Sword, actively combating the German occupation. But the picture of French Resistance involved a host of competing resistance groups, including those loyal to the Communist cause. The rivalry between Resistance groups almost brought the newly liberated France into the throes of civil war. (A similar situation existed in Italy.)
During the Fourth Republic, Mitterrand became the Minister of Overseas France. This post lasted for a year, but was characterized by his hard-line stance against the Algerian insurgency. Mitterrand embraced a paradoxical view of the French Empire, seeing it as a global egalitarian entity. Unfortunately, he later realized that, in the case of Algeria, French rule resembled a racist military junta like that of Nazi Germany. The minority of settlers ruled Algeria with an iron fist. Short points out how, following the drawn out viciousness of the Algerian War, race relations between the white and Arab populations of France were permanently poisoned. This adds the necessary complexity to the occasional flare-up in French society when veils are banned. Despite France’s longstanding secular heritage, it is not as simple as a pro-atheist argument would make it. France has its culture of hate-mongers, since even devout Catholics can be anti-Arab. Banning veils is just another way to twist the knife following the Algerian War for Independence.
As Mitterrand sharked his way up the political ladder, he cemented his reputation for Machiavellian machinations. In order to oppose President Charles De Gaulle (1958 – 1969), he had to unite the Left. He did this by creating the Union of the Left, a coalition of Socialist, Communist, and social democratic groups. By doing this, he defanged the Communist Party, a longtime holdout to any alliance. The Communists saw the Socialists as collaborators and apologists for capitalism. Their political structure was militaristic and they had a fanaticism off-putting to Mitterrand’s brand of politics. One’s political purity is useless when one isn’t in power. (Something both the Occupy movement and the Tea Party have yet to comprehend.)
Upon reaching the pinnacle of power in 1981, Mitterrand helmed the ship of State through the choppy waters of the Cold War endgame. He had to deal with the Reagan White House’s anti-communist rhetoric and crises in the Middle East. But he also showed his Cold War bona fides by fighting terrorism and siding with the United Kingdom in the Falklands War. His support for Thatcher is an object lesson in European nationalism. Despite his Socialist party loyalty and his social reforms, he sided with Thatcher because France had, in Short’s pithy phrasing, “a confetti of empire” around the globe. If the Falklands fell, then one of France’s tiny island colonies might also fall.
It is heartening that this book was written now, in 2014, so long after the Cold War ended. Mitterrand’s decisions and attitudes reflect the bewilderment of other global leaders following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact coincided with German unification (Mitterrand opposed it) and new conflicts (the First Gulf War, the Yugoslavian civil wars, and the Rwandan genocide). Looking at it with the benefits of hindsight, someone needs to name this politically enigmatic period, from the Soviet Union’s end (1991) to The War on Terror (2001). The Confidence Trap by David Runciman gives a lucid analysis of the global crisis that occurred from the West’s success at winning the Cold War.
For those seeking an enlightening biography and a unique view into modern French history following the First World War, A Taste for Intrigue should satisfy. Philip Short, a former London Times reporter, has written biographies about Mao and Pol Pot.
Out of 10/9.5