One of the most recent, and amusingly unlikely, pop culture mentions of François Mitterand comes up in the 2010 Clint Eastwood/Peter Morgan film, Hereafter. A French television journalist Marie Lelay, played by Cécile de France, is discussing ideas with her producers for a new documentary. She suggests they do an episode on France’s most contentious and charismatic late president. The producers scoff initially, but Lelay persuades them with all the juicy, lurid details of Mitterrand’s long and winding political career—his Vichy connections in the early days, his leap into the Resistance, his ballsiness in politically veering away from the formidable shadow of Charles de Gaulle, his leftist politics, his staunch old-fashioned imperialism, his flawed and occasionally self-interested approach to foreign policy, and ultimately, underneath all of this, is unshakeable “Frenchness”.
She wins them over, and one of them wonders if she’ll write a book. Flattered, she beams, but demurely avoids the question.
Philip Short’s new book, A Taste for Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of François Mitterrand, is by all accounts a biography that’s quite similar to Marie Lelay’s colorful sales pitch. Short, a former BBC Paris correspondent and a respected investigative journalist who has written books on Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, knows a thing or two about the complex psychology of powerful dictators.
Mitterrand was indeed a dictator of sorts. He was President of France for 14 years, from 1981 to 1995, longer than any other head of state in the five Republics since the Revolution of 1789 (though the Emperor Napoleon III ruled for 18 years). How he managed to hold the reigns of power for so long is still astonishing, but it clearly has something to do with his rare talents as a political survivor and his suavely ruthless and debonair personality. His doctor once called him a strange mixture of “Machiavelli, Don Corleone, Casanova, and The Little Prince”. I would say cross Beauty and the Beast’s Lumière and Mao Zedong with Stalin and you probably have something close to what Mitterrand was.
It’s been nearly ten years since the last book on Mitterrand, Ronald Tiersky’s rather straightforwardly titled, François Mitterrand: A Very French President. Short’s book is a masterfully written, sweeping narrative of Mitterrand’s life with decisive, revealing anecdotes and a meticulous chronicling of fact that is remarkable enough to be fiction. Fortunately for us it’s not a hagiography. I mean, with Mitterrand, how could it possibly be? When talking with most people about him, they all seem to remember his curiously strange private life where he had a second family with his long-term lover Anne Pingeot, which he kept secret for years (though he paid for their upkeep with taxpayer money), while his wife Danielle’s lover, a gym-teacher, lived with the family, often fetching croissants in the morning and then sitting down to breakfast with François and the children.
One of the great pleasures of A Taste for Intrigue is Short’s skillful interweaving of anecdotes and revealing character descriptions of Mitterrand’s diverse five decades-long career in politics and public life. In the early days of the Second World War, like many successful French politicians in those days, Mitterrand was an eager crony of the Vichy government (even until his death in 1996 he sent a wreath every year to be laid on the grave of Marshal Pétain, alleging loyalty to the general’s courage during World War I) but then after being taken prisoner by the Germans while serving on the Western Front in 1940 he joined the Free French. However, the great man himself, de Gaulle, wasn’t won over by young Mitterrand’s charm. “That man has his nose in every trough,” he once confided to an aide, and years later as Mitterrand was scaling the political ladder, de Gaulle warned the public that Mitterrand and his colleague, René Bousquet, were “ghosts who came from the deepest depths of the collaboration.”
Enjoyable also is a portion in one of the later chapters detailing the late years of Mitterrand’s presidency, called, “The Monarch”, which chronicles his initial opposition, along with Margaret Thatcher, to Germany’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The two stood against the driving forces of Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze, George Bush and James Baker, and Helmut Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher. France and the United Kingdom had experienced some of the worst aspects of the Second World War and were against a potentially strong Germany. Being the man he was though, Mitterrand eventually realized he was on the losing team in the force of history and switched sides. Thankfully for us, Short doesn’t spare us the juicy bits of conversation that came from the declassified tapes: GORBACHEV to MITTERAND: “Your friend Kohl, your partner, is a hick from the countryside. Here even the humblest politician in the provinces thinks six moves ahead. Not him.”
History will remember Mitterrand for his legacy in sponsoring grand, lasting architectural projects that many of us associate with modern France: I.M. Pei’s Louvre glass pyramid, the Grande Arche de la Défense, Musée d’Orsay, Parc de la Villette, Arab World Institute, Ministry of Finance, Opéra Bastille, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and in being in the wrong side of the Rwandan genocide. Not only was Mitterrand’s government non-responsive in coming to the aid of the Tutsis, but declassified intelligence files later revealed that it was responsible in financially adding and arming the Hutu militias who committed the atrocities.
But politics has always been a game of adjusting to uneasy compromises. Unyielding ideals has weighed many a candidate down like a fatal anchor. Mitterrand, more than most men in the 20th century, played that game better than anyone. Few would disagree with Short when he says that Mitterrand “changed the ground rules of French social and political debate in ways more far-reaching and fundamental than any other modern leader before him.” In many ways he was a kind of Borgia prince in a country that was once ruled and culturally transformed by the wily Catherine de’ Medici.
Short’s sweeping biography is a gripping, insightful, and often entertaining, account of one of Europe’s most complicated and fascinating men. It’s a must-read for any Francophile and enthusiast of 20th century political history. One of the amazing things about Short’s book is that one can read it and know almost everything about Mitterrand in terms what kind of wine and women he liked and his self-perception as a romantic hero and political striver, but know almost nothing about who he really was. Who was the man underneath the veneer of that Machiavellian bon vivant? Will we ever really know? He reminds me of what Winston Churchill said about Russia; to paraphrase him, Mitterrand is in some ways a riddle wrapped in a mystery shrouded in an enigma. Short’s brilliant book helps us see rare glimpses of the man within the shroud.