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The Multiple Lives of François Mitterrand

by Philip Short

Pub Date: April 8th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8853-3
Publisher: John Macrae/Henry Holt

An accessible biography of François Mitterrand (1916–1996), the first popularly elected socialist president, whose life “mirrored the contradictions and compromises of the times in which he lived.”

In simple terms, foreign correspondent Short (Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, 2005, etc.) explains the workings of French politics from the World War II Vichy government through the highly productive years of Mitterrand’s government, sparing readers much of the alphabet soup of France’s parties. In true French fashion, the author downplays the leader’s personal life and his “two families.” After escaping from a German prison camp, Mitterrand searched for the best method to rid France of its occupiers. The Vichy government of “free France” suffered accusations of collaboration and obvious cooperation in the roundup of Jews, which tainted all who worked with its leader, Philippe Pétain. Despite his resistance activities, Mitterrand would face similar accusations for the rest of his life. The Fifth Republic, under Charles de Gaulle, put near-monarchical power into the leader’s hands. Mitterrand’s efforts at colonial reform, the Algerian War and his refusal to vote for de Gaulle led to his wilderness years and pushed him firmly into the Socialist Party. Even so, he was mocked since, according to his contemporary Guy Mollet, “he did not become socialist…he learnt to speak socialist.” The author describes Mitterrand as an ambiguous, haughty, inaccessible procrastinator who was invariably late. When he finally successfully became president of France, it was during the highly charged years of the 1980s. Working with West Germany’s Helmut Kohl and working around Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, he fought to establish the European Union and the euro as its currency. He battled against Israeli intransigence regarding the Palestinians, Reagan’s “Star Wars,” and the influences of Iran and Syria in the Middle East.

No hagiographer, Short delivers a clear, useful picture of his subject and his country.