Commentary Magazine

The Black and the Red: Francois Mitterrand, The Story of an Ambition, by Catherine Nay

Mitterrand by Stendahl

The Black and the Red: François Mitterrand, The Story of an Ambition.
by Catherine Nay.
Translated by Alan Sheridan. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 404 pp. $19.95.

If François Mitterrand runs for a second seven-year term as President of France next year and wins, it will surprise no one. In a long political career he has taught his countrymen to expect of him perseverance beyond every other quality. Having been for two decades the Old Man of the French Left, he is now the Old Man of France. Depending on what he chooses to do next, he may turn out to be the Old Man of the West. Surely he deserves some attention.

In France, of course, he has been receiving attention since the early 1950’s, when as a promising and ambitious young minister he served in most of the short-lived governments of the Fourth Republic. Himself an elegant if somewhat pompous writer, much given to generalizations and lofty meditations about the Meaning of It All, Mitterrand has been the object of several book-length studies in France. The English translation of one of these, by the broadcast journalist Catherine Nay, is thus a welcome event (though it must be said that the translation itself is quite poor). Written in a lively style, Miss Nay’s book is detailed to a fault. The reader, however, should be warned that it assumes a fair degree of familiarity with the principal events of French history and is essentially an “inside-politics” study rather than a broad biographical and historical effort. The publishers might at least have had the consideration to provide American readers with chronologies and schematic analyses of the constitutional and political structures of the Fourth and Fifth Republics.

Still, The Black and the Red does make up in part for the absence of material on Mitterrand in English—such absence being a symptom of the fading importance of France in our view of the international scene in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Correct or not, this perception of France as a nation in decline actually has something to do with François Mitterrand. He is a man who throughout his life has spoken out eloquently for decency and justice; he has visibly let his heart, a generous heart in a remote and somewhat enigmatic personality, rule his head. But the head obeying the heart’s sentiments has been filled with the anachronistic ideas of 19th-century socialism.

These ideas were not exactly programmed for success, not when they were formulated and even less so in the conditions of the late 20th century. Mitterrand’s first (and perhaps only) presidential term, 1981-1988, insofar as it has implemented these selfsame ideas, is partly responsible for the slowing-down of what had been, unbeknownst to many Americans, a period of rapid economic growth in France known as the “Thirty Glorious Years,” a period that had restored France to a leadership position in Europe unmatched since the 18th century. For all his generous rhetoric, Mitterrand turned out to be ungenerous toward his countrymen.



François Mitterrand based his career, as Miss Nay demonstrates, on being an outsider and a naysayer. On the margins of the anti-republican Right before World War II, this son of a prosperous bourgeois family entered the Resistance when, having escaped from a Stalag after the military catastrophe of 1940, he saw that Marshall Pétain would not save the nation from the Germans. But he was unable, in the Resistance, to come to terms with the leader of Free France, Charles de Gaulle.

The nonconformist pattern persisted after the war. He did not join what should have been his natural political party, the centrist Mouvement Républicain Populaire, preferring to take part in a small group slightly more to the Right, the misnamed Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance (UDSR). Miss Nay’s title, which is of course an ironic takeoff on Stendhal’s great novel of ambition, suggests accurately that the course of Mitterrand’s own ambition took him from the Catholic Right to the secular Left; but it was not until well into the 1960’s, when de Gaulle was established in power, that Mitterrand described himself as a socialist in a serious sense, that is, in the sense of wanting to get rid of bourgeois liberal democracy and the economic and legal institutions it is founded on.

In the musical-chairs governments of the Fourth Republic, Mitterrand, neither outstanding nor unconventional, was the youngest minister. The Fourth Republic was faced with three problems: empire (also known as “decolonization”), economic modernization (“taking off”), and political stability. Mitterrand had fresh thoughts about none of these. He supported the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria; he had no economic views at all; and the perennial instability of the Fourth Republic suited his political temperament.

On this period of Mitterrand’s life, which takes him through his young adulthood, Miss Nay is informative without being especially enlightening. As she puts it, Mitterrand in those years was “a man in search of inner unity, a project, or an idea . . . [he] oscillated between Center-Right and Center-Left with one constant: a deep-seated, virulent anti-Communism.” But then, so did France itself in those years. The country was doing its best to avoid the dismal alternatives of Communism—which received up to a quarter of the votes in elections—and Italian-style immobilism. The French were bemused and confused; unable to save their empire, unsure why they should even try to. Miss Nay makes it clear that Mitterrand fit right in.

He fit in, but he also stayed curiously aloof. When in 1958 a coup in Algiers nearly brought down the Republic, Mitterrand was among a tiny number (outside the Communists) who refused to grant any credit to the man who rescued it, Charles de Gaulle. It was virtually ordained, after this, that he would refuse to support de Gaulle’s plans for a new Constitution (based on the one the French people had rejected a decade earlier) establishing the Fifth Republic.

Miss Nay helps us to understand Mitterrand’s determined “no,” but not the vehemence of his refusal. Mitterrand immediately accused de Gaulle of dictatorial tendencies—this, of the man who had saved France first from fascists, then from Communists, and finally from military putschists. He wrote a violent pamphlet, Le Coup d’État Permanent, which denied the legitimacy of the Fifth Republic. In 1959 he stated, in print: “Anything is to be welcomed that will bring an end to the heartless politico-military coalition that currently governs us, holds the state in its claws, and lacks in true greatness” (emphasis added). According to Miss Nay, “If this meant allying himself with the Communist devil, François Mitterrand was prepared to do so.”



France is a country whose people have an easy taste for irony. The novelist André Malraux, de Gaulle’s culture minister, once boasted that “Between us and the Communists, there is nothing.” François Mitterrand, whose career seemed to have been prematurely ruined in 1958, was, in a sense, the one who heard him best. With all his anachronisms, de Gaulle had nonetheless been able to defeat the old Right, temporarily marginalize the Left, and give France an opportunity to modernize politically, economically, and culturally. In such an environment Mitterrand, true to his Fourth Republic roots, felt underemployed. Yet the real anachronism was the Fourth Republic itself, and so were the ideas that Mitterrand now turned to.

These were the ideas of the Marxist Left, as encrusted in the psyches of French intellectuals in a peculiarly abstract and dogmatic form. They were a far less real—and far less prudent—guide to statecraft than were the notions of national glory and international influence that had tantalized and motivated de Gaulle and his followers. Miss Nay suggests there was nothing much more than political opportunism in Mitterrand’s adoption of these ideas in order to run as a candidate of the united Left (though not as a member of the Socialist party) in the presidential campaign of 1965 against de Gaulle. He calculated (like Malraux) that the Gaullists were impregnable from the Right. The Center could not be mobilized against them. Therefore, he must rally the Left. And to rally the Left, by definition, meant either destroying the Communists or ending the schism that divided them from democrats.

When, in 1972, Mitterrand finally convinced the Socialist party to sign the notorious pact for a “Common Government Program” which had been proposed by the French Communist party at intervals since the early 1950’s, the Communists still had a larger popular following than the Socialists. The Socialists had been enervated by the contradictions between their doctrinaire Marxist rhetoric and their relatively practical approach to politics, which was founded on support for NATO, the Common Market, and Israel. Mitterrand had never been on cordial terms with the old Socialist leaders (even though he had served in a coalition government headed by Guy Mollet, the successor of Léon Blum). When he took over the party, following intrigues that are probably incomprehensible to a non-Frenchman, he was joined by a large contingent of the so-called gauche soixantehuitarde, or generation of ‘68. This generation’s contribution to the Left, beneath a vaguely libertarian veneer, was to abandon the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet positions of the old democratic Left, and also the basis of its opposition to capitalism. It was not with the interests of the workers in mind that Mitterrand and the generation of ‘68 opposed private property (however wrong-headed in itself that might be) but rather in the name of total abstractions like “life” or the “Third World.” “Le Socialisme,” intoned Mitterrand, “c’est la justice.

Although he wrote many articles and several books during the long campaigns of the 1970’s, and although he engaged in polemics constantly with the various factions that made up the Socialist party, Mitterrand, like many men who convert to socialism more with the heart than with the head, never really got beyond such platitudes. He wrote and spoke without irony about altering the basic structures of society to rescue “the people” from various tyrannies, but he never offered much evidence that he had reflected seriously and deeply about political institutions and social structures.



The great irony of Mitterrand’s career was that by the time the French people decided the Left represented a trustworthy, moderate alternative to conservatives grown complacent after twenty-three years in power, both the Left itself and Mitterrand were convinced that they had won approval for a revolutionary program, complete with Communist participation. It is here that Miss Nay’s book is particularly disappointing, due to her lack of interest in ideas. François Mitterrand arrived in power in 1981 armed with a catalogue of ideas that could only have emerged from the overheated factional debates of a self-consciously revolutionary movement that (a) was determined to destroy “capitalism”; (b) considered “U.S. imperialism” as serious a threat to peace and liberty in Western Europe (and the “third world”) as the Soviet variety; and, in consequence of these (c) took it as axiomatic that the Communist voters, without whose support the “People of the Left” (le peuple de gauche) could not win, deserved representation in the government. Which they of course eventually got.

What became evident within a few months of the Left’s victories in May and June 1981, however, was that these were ideas whose time not only had passed, but whose time was clearly understood by the French people to have passed. Indeed, Mitterrand discovered very soon after his triumph that the intellectuals, whom he had correctly assumed to be part of the family of the Left (with outstanding exceptions), were deserting him. This meant that there was virtually no one, outside the lugubrious editorialists of Le Monde (a newspaper whose circulation declined substantially in the early 1980’s), to explain and defend the Socialist experiment to a recalcitrant population, which tended naturally enough to focus on the disastrous effects of the government spending binge. Five years into his seven-year presidential term, Mitterrand’s Socialists lost control of the legislature to a coalition of conservative parties with which they now share power in an arrangement of cohabitation.

Still, although in the early years of his Presidency Mitterrand’s understanding of economics was based on demagogy and sentimentality—he sincerely believed he could win votes by boasting that he owned no stocks—his understanding of foreign policy turned out to be more realistic than his pronouncements had led many to fear. While indulging, for domestic consumption, in rhetorical anti-Americanism in the Mexican manner, Mitterrand turned out to be no worse in foreign policy than one expects from French presidents. To be sure, wrecking an economy is no way to sustain a serious defense policy; nonetheless, the president and his very able defense minister, Charles Hernu (eventually forced to resign in the Rainbow Warrior affair), were more anti-Soviet than their predecessors. They championed the French nuclear deterrent against the leftist dogmas Mitterrand himself had long subscribed to, and they supported the NATO positions on the nuclear defense of Europe, particularly during the episode of the Pershing II’s, when Mitterrand memorably stated that “The Soviets have SS-20’s; the West has pacifists.”

Miss Nay generally agrees with Mitterrand’s friends that he never abandoned the hatred of the Communists that he developed in the Fourth Republic. Skeptics like Jean-François Revel reply that the Socialists nevertheless allowed themselves to be psychologically and intellectually “colonized” by the Communists. In fact, in still another historical irony, the French Communist party has been damaged by the very strategy of the Union of the Left which brought Mitterrand to power. From an electoral base of 25 percent it is down to below 10. Some supporters appear to have migrated to the xenophobic National Front.



What is not contestable is that the Socialists, with about a third of the vote, are now, with Chirac’s Gaullists, one of the two major parties in France. For this they can thank François Mitterrand—the outsider who did not even have a party card when they chose him as their leader. For he did bring the Left back into the mainstream—if only by demonstrating, in office, that revolutionary rhetoric would remain only that, rhetoric. As for the damage caused by his lyrical economic and social policies, this, though it may well have exceeded its demonstration-value, has not been irreparable.

By the end of Mitterrand’s term and the onset of the present cohabitation, several things had become clarified about France’s relalation to socialism. Miss Nay puts the case this way: “Legislative socialism was not made to last, governmental socialism would be beaten, popular socialism was in mourning, and ideological socialism was in full retreat.” She neglects to mention the significant fact that the party nevertheless marches stoutly on.

Miss Nay’s book would have benefited from a fuller working-out of her pithy summary of France in the 1980’s. But in a sense, the story of François Mitterrand is enough.



About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.

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