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Remembrance of Things Past

4 minute read
Paul Gray

In the late, bittersweet autumn of a career that has spanned nearly half a century, French President Francois Mitterrand, 77, faces a wintry political future. Constitutionally barred from running for re-election, with his Socialist Party in disarray and repudiated at the polls, he must vacate the Elysee Palace, after 14 years in office, when his current seven-year term expires in May 1995. But Mitterrand seems determined to leave power with his reputation intact and with his massive place in postwar French — and European — history clearly established.

Just how firm that resolve is received startling corroboration in Paris last week with the publication of Une Jeunesse Francaise (A French Youth): Francois Mitterrand 1934-1947. Written by investigative reporter Pierre Pean, this 616- page study exhaustively documents a period of Mitterrand’s life that has long been the subject of speculation, rumor and innuendo. Friendly biographies have heretofore ignored or glided around the question that haunts every French member of Mitterrand’s generation: Just what did he do before and during the World War II Nazi Occupation?

Some of the answers unearthed by Pean’s research have surprised those who know only of Mitterrand’s well- and self-publicized work in the French Resistance. Even more amazing is the identity of one of Pean’s most important sources: Mitterrand himself, who provided complete access to his personal archives. “I have nothing to hide,” the author quotes the President as saying. “I’ll help you.”

Nothing to hide? Less confident figures might wonder. Among Pean’s discoveries:

At age 18, Mitterrand joined the youth branch of the French right-wing movement Croix-de-Feu (Cross of Fire) and was photographed at a 1935 demonstration featuring banners reading DEHORS LES METEQUES (or, roughly, GO HOME, FOREIGNERS).

Mitterrand had friends among the members of Cagoule, a fascist underground organization that staged political assassinations and attacks on Jews. As Minister of the Interior following the war, Mitterrand tried to get some of the Cagoulards out of jail.

He admired and worked for Marshal Philippe Petain, head of the Vichy government set up by the Germans to function during the Occupation. In November 1941 he was awarded the Francisque, the highest honor accorded by the Vichy regime. He maintained a loyal friendship with Rene Bosquet, the Vichy police chief who — until his assassination last year — fought a long legal battle to escape trial for his role in rounding up Jews during the Occupation. According to the book, Mitterrand had Bosquet to dinner as late as 1986.

Mitterrand switched sides and began working for the Resistance in early 1943, a year later than he has claimed in the past, at a time when an Allied victory seemed increasingly inevitable.

To a French politician hoping to run for office again, such disclosures — so thoroughly and dispassionately documented — would be ruinous. The Occupation years still chafe at the French national conscience. Hence the soothing balm of national discourse: All of France belonged to the Resistance except for a tiny band of traitors and collaborators in Vichy.

But because Mitterrand is fading from public life, revelations about his % activities during the war have prompted more reminiscences than recriminations. Pean prints a wartime letter he discovered from Henri Frenay, chief of the United Movement of the Resistance. An aide of Charles de Gaulle’s Opposition-in-exile had questioned Mitterrand’s newfound Resistance fervor, given his previous dedication to Vichy. “France’s drama,” Frenay wrote back, “is that its honest and impartial men believed, during a certain time, in Marshal Petain and placed their trust in him. They, without a doubt, made a mistake, but it was an innocent mistake that we cannot hold as a crime against them.”

The initial French response to Pean’s work reflects this tolerance. There seems general relief that some of the more sinister rumors about the young Mitterrand have been debunked. “He is not anti-Semitic,” the author has been telling interviewers. “I never found a single word, a single line that allowed me to think otherwise.” Says Alain Duhamel, a political analyst and journalist, of the new book: “It shows Mitterrand was a nationalist, pro- Petain, but not a collaborator. I think you can also see, in his cooperation with the author, Mitterrand’s desire to put his biographical house in order.” In looking back, the old warrior shows unmistakable signs of looking forward to posterity as well. As he told Pean: “In such turbulent times, when one is so young, it’s difficult to choose. I came out relatively well.”

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