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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Mitterrand, A Clouded Role In History

Some politicians manage to retire from office with their dignity and reputation more or less intact. This was true for Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan in the United States, and for Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt in the former West Germany. But other politicians are not so fortunate. As the end of their appointed term approaches, their whole world seems to fall apart. This is the case with Fran?ois Mitterrand.


The French president will be 78 next month, and prostate cancer threatens to end his life before he can serve out the remaining eight months of his presidency. Understandably, he is devoting much thought to how history will view him.


He has recently allowed himself to be questioned at length in two French newspapers and on television about his mysterious political activities as a young man in the 1930s and in World War II. He has also volunteered information about his past to an author of new book, "A French Youth: Fran?ois Mitterrand, 1934-47."


Mitterrand, a socialist who has held the presidency since 1981, does not emerge with much credit from the new light that is being thrown on his life. Having consorted with the militant right as a young man, he was a prisoner of war in Germany before he returned to France and worked for the Nazi-backed Vichy regime. He then joined the Resistance, but not until 1943, when it was clear which way the war was going. He was also friendly with Rene Bousquet, the Vichy police chief who organized the deportation of Jews from Paris.


Mitterrand's record in World War II is not so different from that of millions of other Frenchmen. Vichy may be an unpleasant memory today, but for much of its existence it was very popular with the French. Far from acknowledging the reality that it was a collaborationist, authoritarian state, Vichy presented itself to Frenchmen as a new patriotic order that would cleanse and regenerate the nation. At least one can say that Mitterrand did, eventually, break with Vichy.


However, it seems that Mitterrand still cannot bring himself to be completely honest about his past. In the television interview, he said that, after he returned to France in 1942, he was unaware that Vichy had passed anti-Jewish laws. This is astonishing, given that Mitterrand was a politically conscious lawyer working in a civil service from which Jews had been banned since 1940. As the left-wing newspaper Liberation observed, is it credible that Mitterrand was ignorant of the fact that some Frenchmen had to wear yellow stars?


Mitterrand's efforts to influence history's judgement of him have backfired, exposing serious character flaws, undermining his authority for what is left of his time of office, and possibly damaging the institution of the presidency itself. In comparison with Charles de Gaulle, his main political rival for much of his career, Mitterrand looks the lesser man.


He does, of course, have some achievements to his credit. He defeated the communist attempt to be the dominant party of the French left. He showed that France can have a leftist president and be stable. He played his part in bringing about the great transformations in Europe of the last five years.


On the other hand, he leaves his Socialist Party in disarray, rocked by growing financial scandals, crushed in last year's parliamentary elections and demoralized by the revelations about his past. In the end, the truth caught up with Fran?ois Mitterrand.