Francois Mitterrand – A Study In Ambiguity

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Francois Mitterrand – A Study In Ambiguity
By Philip Short
The Bodley Head – £30.00

I don’t need anyone to defend me […]. I’ve done nothing wrong, I don’t have to apologise. That would be to play the other side’s game… These accusations are an extraordinary, immense… hypocrisy. In the end, nothing will remain of them.

Mitterrand – A Study In Ambiguity is very much a humanistic, as well as primarily French, political biography. Not only does it home in on a unique individual who has in the past been described as an ”aesthete, sensualist, bookworm, politician of Machiavellian cunning,” it is also an exceedingly well written, as well as thoroughly researched and tirelessly documented piece of work.

Personally, I always liked and fully respected Francois Mitterrand – a man of exceptional gifts and flaws in equal measure – simply because he had the charismatic chutzpah, nerve, verve and idiosyncratic French bollocks to stand up to America (the idiotic Ronald Reagan in particular), at a time when relations between East and West were teetering upon a precipice of mild, nuclear induced, madness.

And for that alone, the former French President warrants tumultuous acclaim – which ought never be forgotten.

So far as this book is concerned, author Philip Short – whose previous works include The Dragon and the Bear: Inside China and Russia Today, Mao: A Life and Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare – has herein written a book that shoots straight from the hip of mercurial, political analysis, not to mention a personal miasma not often found within most tombs of biographical strata.

To be sure, it unabashedly tells it as it was.

Or, for political dogs with a grudge to bear, who make no bones whatsoever about having to forever kneel at the alter of trite cynicism, Short writes and tells it was it probably and undeniably was. During the Second World War for instance, not only was Mitterrand leader of a resistance movement, he was also decorated for services to the collaborationist regime in Vichy; surely a wayward, albeit somewhat commendable juxtaposition of a political path in itself. Then, after flirting with the Far Right, he entered parliament replete with the backing of conservatives and the Catholic church, before evolving unto the undisputed leader of the predominantly Socialist Left. Which again, many a dedicated follower of French politics, might consider something of a caustic contradiction in terms. But there’s more. As president, Mitterrand continued to coax French Communists into the government – all the better to destroy them. While all the while, managing to find time for an extraordinarily complicated love life; one which may have initially been private, but soon evolved into unrelenting, French acceptance.

It might be said that such ideological patois is the norm in France; rather like its incredibly dense and highly complicated political structure – which Short touches on in the eleventh chapter ‘The Novitiate,’ wherein he quotes his subject: ”Earlier in the Elysee, Mitterrand spelt out his goals. ‘I wish to convince, not to conquer […]. There was only one victor on May 10 1981: Hope! May it become the most shared quality in France!… My aim is to bring the French people together, as the President of all, for the great causes which await us, creating… a true national community’ based on ‘a new alliance of socialism and freedom […]. But the main lesson of the election was that the ‘political majority of the French people have identified with the social majority,’ giving a voice to those millions and millions of men and women, the ferment of our people, who, for two centuries, in peace and in war, by their labour and by the shedding of their blood, have fashioned the History of France, without having access to it except through brief but glorious fractures of our society […]. Jacques Chirac, the Mayor of Paris, to whom he paid a formal call that afternoon, urged him to temper his actions with realism. Mitterrand replied that he would keep the promises he had made. National reconciliation was one thing. The ‘glorious fracture’ of the established order was another. That was what he had been elected for and that is what he would do.”

Such (social and political) fractionate, is what accounts for so much French history. It’s seemingly endemic in fact.

It’s what partially accounts for France being what it is. To quote Alexis de Tocqueville: ”society was cut in two: those who had nothing united in common greed, and those who had something united in common terror.” And while much the same could just as easily be applied to Greece, for some reason, an undercurrent of fractiousness actually works in France – of whom Mitterrand, much like De Gaulle, continues to remain one of the most crystal clear examples.

Mitterrand – A Study In Ambiguity is a more than compelling, weighty and substantial read.

If nothing else, it endeavours to set numerous records straight: from the fiasco of France’s tortuous involvement in Algeria, to it’s seemingly complacent lack of involvement amid the genocide of Rwanda; from the semi-collaborationist era of Vichy to both Mitterrand and France’s nigh complete embrace of Mikhail Gorbachev. These 582 pages (not including Acronyms, Bibliography and Sources), tell a unique story of a very unique and complicated man.

Rather like France itself.

David Marx

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