Mitterrand and the far right
François Mitterrand and the far right has been the theme of a number of books, films and television programmes since 1990, generating many column inches and much debate, not to mention rumours and gossip. Pierre Péan's book published in 1994 discusses in depth François Mitterrand's formative years in 1930s and 1940s. Other authors discuss 1980s rise in the Front national, and debate the possibility of Mitterrand deliberately dividing the right for political gain.
Les Volontaires Nationaux, la Cagoule and l'invasion métèque
Many commentators and authors line up along party lines, and consensus in their views is difficult to achieve. It is, however, widely accepted in France that Mitterrand's actions during the period 1934 to 1945 are open to contradictory interpretations. An example of this is his membership of the Volontaires Nationaux (National Volunteers), an organization related to François de la Rocque's far right league, the Croix de Feu, which lasted between one and three years depending on sources. On 1 February 1935, Mitterrand joined the Action française march, more commonly known as “l'invasion métèque”, to demonstrate against foreign doctors setting up in France with cries of “La France aux Français”. There are two photos which show Mitterrand facing a police line, published in Les Camelots du Roi by Maurice Pujo. Mitterrand admitted being there but denied taking part in the demonstration in a TV interview with Jean-Pierre Elkabach in September 1994. He is quoted as saying “Je n'y étais pas pour ça” ( “I was not there for that”) and, in France, there is some debate over the significance of his presence at the march.
Similarly, many young people, mostly students, lived at 104, rue de Vaugirard, Paris with the “pères maristes” and they all knew the leaders of La Cagoule (a right-wing terrorist organisation), Eugène Deloncle and Eugène Schueller, without overtly adhering to their cause. Pierre Guillain de Bénouville, Claude Roy (the writer), François Mitterrand and André Bettencourt all regularly visited the apartments in rue Zédé and rue Chernoviz where La Cagoule met. But this does not prove that Mitterrand was a member of la Cagoule. He did, however, he keep up relations and family ties with Eugène Deloncle.
During the winter of 1936, François Mitterrand took part in action against Gaston Jèze. Between January and March 1936, the nationalist right and l'Action française, campaigned for Gaston Jèze's resignation, because he acted as a counsellor for Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, after he was driven from Addis Ababa by Mussolini's troops during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War.
Mitterrand in the Elkabach TV interview and also in his memoirs defends his actions in this period by saying they were typical of many apolitical inexperienced young men from provincial, middle class, Catholic families at this time, but at best his behavior seems to indicate an ambitious young man looking for action and making connections with little discernment and poor insight. At worst it sits very uncomfortably in the history of a high profile left-wing politician.
Mitterrand has been called “Le vichysto-résistant”, meaning that he was both part of the Vichy regime as a civil servant and an active member of the resistance during the period January 1942 to mid 1943. His actions during this period are hotly debated. His work in the Vichy regime was mostly of a civic and social nature in the department looking after the interests of French POWs. According to Franz-Olivier Giesbert "He came to Vichy to work: Colonel Le Corbeiller, a friend of his mother, found him a job. It was a short term contract with a salary of 2100 francs a month." Giesbert then goes on to say "Maurice Pinot, the head of department for the welfare of POWs, was a member of the resistance ... and the services of his department became subversive, helping prisoners escape from camps in Germany." However in January 1943, the department became overtly pro Nazi. The historian C. Lewin says "the attitude of those working in the POW department from the beginning was anti-German and therefore anti-collaborationist. The Vichy Regime, for the most part, were supportive of the department at first but the Regime's relationship with the occupying forces was ambiguous and slowly slipped into collaboration which forced those working in the POW department to be careful and distance themselves from the Regime. The actions of the POW dept remained civic, social, apolitical and 'wait and see' ". In January 1943 Maurice Pinot was replaced as head of the department so Mitterrand resigned, keeping his post as the head of the “centres d'entraides” for which he received the francisque gallique in march or April 1943 (the date differs given the sources).
For some, Pierre Péan's book shows Mitterrand was pro Pétain, for example in a letter written to his sister on 13 March 1942, he wrote " I saw 'le maréchal' at the theater ... his demeanour is magnificent, his face that of a marble statue" and Georges-Marc Benamou quotes Mitterrand as saying "Ah Vichy, Ah Pétain ... he was an old man, a bit out of touch but ... magnificent." Others, however, reading the same book interpret the facts differently, saying that Mitterrand was never pro Vichy, and was actively sending maps and other equipment to POW camps to help with escapes right from the beginning. Another letter quoted in the book, dated 22 avril 1942, shows he had doubts about Pierre Laval, and disliked the way the POW department was being reorganised. From mid 1943 his active membership of the resistance is not contested.
Le Maréchal Pétain
The laying of flowers on Maréchal Philippe Pétain's tomb during the period 1984 to 1991 has caused much controversy. Under the presidency of Général de Gaulle Pétain's tomb was decorated with flowers in the president's name on 10 November 1968 for the 50th anniversary of the 1918 armistice and again in February 1973 (under Georges Pompidou), following attacks on the tomb at L'Île-d'Yeu and once more in 1978 (under Valéry Giscard d'Estaing), for the 60th anniversary of the victory in 1918.
During François Mitterrand's presidency, the grave was decorated with flowers 22 September 1984 (the day Mitterrand met Helmut Kohl at Verdun), then on 15 June 1986 (70th anniversary of the Battle for Verdun) and every 11 November from 1987 to 1992. This practice only stopped after numerous protests from the Jewish community.
According to Pierre Favier and Michel Martin-Roland, François Mitterrand saw himself as following his predecessors when in 1984, after shaking Helmut Kohl's hand, he laid a wreath on the tomb. They quote Mitterrand in the same book as saying that the wreath laying from 1987 onwards "n'était qu'une habitude prise par l'administration" ("was just a custom of (his) administration"). François Mitterrand like other apologists for Pétain say they are simply honouring the memory of the hero of Verdun and not the head of state from Vichy. Laurent Fabius, one of Mitterrand's Prime Ministers, remarked that when we judge a man we must do it on the basis of the whole of his life. Whilst the historian André Kaspi said "Pétain the collaborator of 1940 to 1944 could not have misled the French nor convinced a large number of them to follow him without the prestige of Pétain the hero of 1914-1918. One could not have existed without the other."
The most damning of all charges against Mitterrand and his right-wing connections is probably his long lasting friendship with René Bousquet, ex secrétaire général of the Vichy police. Charles de Gaulle said of Mitterrand and Bousquet "they are ghosts who come from the deepest depths of the collaboration." Georges-Marc Benamou quotes Mitterrand as saying of Bousquet "his career shattered at the age of 35, it was dreadful... Bousquet suffered badly. Imagine the break, the career shot to pieces" which shows Mitterrand felt that Bousquet was undeservedly badly treated. In 1974, René Bousquet gave financial help to François Mitterrand for his presidential campaign against Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. In an interview with Pierre Favier et Michel Martin-Roland Mitterrand claimed that he was not the only left wing politician to benefit from Bousquet's money, as René Bousquet helped finance all the principal left wing politicians from the 1950s to the beginning of the 1970s, including Pierre Mendès France. Worse still, after Mitterrand's 1981 win, René Bousquet was received at the Élysée palace “to talk politics”. In an interview with Pascale Froment (René Bousquet's biographer) Mitterrand declared "I listened to him as a political commentator. He saw me as a continuation of his halted career." Only in 1986, when media criticism of Bousquet began to gain in volume, did Mitterrand stop seeing him and he did not comment on the matter until the 1994 interview with Jean-Pierre Elkabach. Lionel Jospin commented that he was little impressed by the President's explanation saying "One would have liked a simpler and more transparent rise to power for the leader of the French left during the 70s and 80s. What I can't understand is the continuing relationship into the 80s with the likes of Bousquet who organized the mass arrests of Jews" and Charles Fiterman also felt let down: "these revelations leave the uncomfortable impression of having been deceived by the man. 50 years later we see no trace of regret nor critical analysis, but a continuation of a compromising relationship which casts new light on events such as putting flowers on Pétain's tomb. This seems to show a continuity in the choices of a leader calling in favors from a network of friends." Pierre Moscovici, commenting on Pierre Péan's book said " What shocked me is his rubbing shoulders with someone who was instrumental in state antisemitism and the 'final solution'. We can't tolerate such tolerance of evil, and for me René Bousquet was absolute evil" and the historian Pierre Miquel commenting on the TV interview said "the comments... of the President of the Republic are part of a discourse from the right... on the subject of the occupation" and he went on to ask "Where are the documents from the resistance which show why Bousquet should be rehabilitated and redecorated? It isn't easy for this generation to understand never mind us."
le Front national
The journalist Franz-Olivier Giesbert reported on what he sees as a deliberate strategy to destabilize the right in the French parliament. In 1982 Mitterrand stated that he felt the French media gave unfair treatment to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front. He therefore told the Communications Minister to speak to the managers of the TV and Radio stations about the air time given to Le Pen. In February 1984, Giesbert reported that the Élysée Palace was 'putting pressure on' the main TV channels to give Le Pen air time on prime time political programs such as, l'Heure de vérité, hosted by François-Henri de Virieu. The historian Anne-Marie Duranton-Crabol accepts that political tactics were part of Mitterrand's reasoning but stops short of accusing him of deliberate political manipulation masquerading as improving the democratic process.
Proportional representation was one of the 110 propositions pour la France of the candidate François Mitterrand in the 1981 presidential elections. The decision to change the method of voting was only adopted in March 1985 the day after the left's disaster in the cantonal elections. It was adopted by the 'conseil des ministres' in April 1985, provoking the immediate resignation of government minister Michel Rocard. Franz-Olivier Giesbert explains this change as being against the parliamentary right rather than pro the FN. The changes in voting practices and the increase in the number of seats from 491 to 577 reduced the chances of the PS losing the majority in parliament. In the elections on 16 March 1986 35 députés from the Front National were elected whilst the alliance of right-wing parties (RPR-UDF and others) only obtained 3 députés more than the absolute majority.
- Pierre Péan, Une Jeunesse française : François Mitterrand, 1934-1947, Fayard, 1994 ISBN 2-213-59300-0
- François Dalle and Jacques Bénet, room mates in Patrick Rotman'sfilm talk of three years.
- url=http://liguedesroyalistesgirondins.hautetfort.com/archive/2007/03/01/mitterand-a-l-action-francaise-lors-d-une-manifestation-de-l.html edited by Action française étudiante consulted 6 October 2008
- 2éd. posthume, Les Éditions du Manant, 1989
- Patrick Rotman and Jean Lacouture's book
- according to Pierre Péan, in : Une jeunesse française, François Mitterrand 1934-1947, Fayard 1998, p.229
- Pierre Péan, ibid., p.537-554
- Pierre Bergé Inventaire Mitterrand, Stock, Paris, 2001, p.33
- Expression used by Jean-Pierre Azéma et Olivier Wieviorka inVichy 1940-44, éd. Perrin, p.355-357 in 1997. this expression was taken up by Azéma and Denis Peschanski, « Les vichysto-résistants », at the colloque « Guerre, collaboration, résistance : un demi-siècle d’historiographie française », in Tel-Aviv, in May 2005, and by Robert Belot, La Résistance sans de Gaulle, Fayard, 2006, ISBN 2-213-62954-4 and by Henry Rousso, L'Express number 2871 13 July 2006
- François Mitterrand ou la tentation de l'histoire, Éditions du Seuil, 1977 ISBN 2-02-004591-5, chap. 5, p.43-50," il débarque à Vichy pour y travailler : un ami de sa mère, le colonel Le Corbeiller, lui a trouvé un emploi. C'est un poste de contractuel avec une solde de 2100 francs par mois."
- "Le commissaire général aux Prisonniers de guerre, Maurice Pinot, est acquis à la résistance [...] Et les services constituent une sorte d'organisation subversive qui aide les prisonniers à s'évader d'Allemagne."
- L'attitude des cadres du commissariat aux prisonniers de guerre était dès le début anti-allemand donc anti-collaborationniste. Quant au régime de Vichy, il lui apportèrent pour la plupart, à l'origine leur soutient. Toutefois l'ambiguïté de ses relations avec l'occupant et son glissement constant sur la pente de la collaboration augmentèrent leur méfiance et précipitèrent leur éloignement. Leur action fut tout autant civique et sociale, apolitique et attentiste"
- ”autumn 1943”, from : Franz-Olivier Giesbert, François Mitterrand ou la tentation de l'histoire, Éditions du Seuil, 1977 ISBN 2-02-004591-5, chap. 5, p.49
- "j'ai vu le maréchal au théâtre [...] il est magnifique d'allure, son visage est celui d'une statue de marbre."
- Ah, Vichy, Ah Pétain [...] c’était un vieillard un peu dépassé mais... magnifique" Jeune homme, vous ne savez pas de quoi vous parlez, Éditions Plon
- Franz-Olivier Giesbert, François Mitterrand ou la tentation de l'histoire, Éditions du Seuil, 1977 ISBN 2-02-004591-5, chap. 5, p.50
- Henry Rousso, Le syndrome de Vichy. De 1944 à nos jours, Éditions du Seuil, coll. « Points histoire », Paris, 1990, p.385.
- Eric Conan, Henry Rousso, Vichy, un passé qui ne passe pas, Fayard, 1994
- crdp-reims.fr, CRDP Champagne-Ardenne, « La reconnaissance progressive de la responsabilité de l'État Français »
- Henry Rousso, Le syndrome de Vichy. De 1944 à nos jours, Éditions du Seuil, coll. « Points histoire », Paris, 1990, p.389
- vie-publique.fr, Extracts from the interview François Mitterrand gave to Radio J on 13 November 1992
- La Décennie Mitterrand, éd. du Seuil, coll. « Points », 2001, p. 646-647
- "Le Pétain collaborateur de 1940-1944 n’a pu égarer les Français et en convaincre bon nombre de le suivre que parce qu’il bénéficiait du prestige du Pétain de 1914-1918. L’un n’aurait pas existé sans l’autre" Henry Rousso, Le Syndrome de Vichy, 1996
- "ce sont les fantômes qui reviennent : le fantôme de l'antigaullisme surgi du plus profond de la collaboration."
- Jeune homme, vous ne savez pas de quoi vous parlez, Éditions Plon, 2001, "Une carrière ainsi brisée à trente-cinq ans, ce n’est pas supportable... Bousquet en souffrait cruellement. Imaginez cette cassure, cette carrière foudroyée ..."
- "Je l'écoutais comme on écoute un chroniqueur politique. Il me voyait comme un continuateur d'une carrière qu'il n'avait pas pu faire."
- humanite.presse.fr, 14 septembre 1994
- "On voudrait rêver d’un itinéraire plus simple et plus clair pour celui qui fut le leader de la gauche française des années soixante-dix et quatre-vingt. Ce que je ne peux comprendre, c’est le maintien, jusque dans les années quatre-vingt, des liens avec des personnages comme Bousquet, l’organisateur des grandes rafles des Juifs "
- " ces révélations laissent le sentiment désagréable d’avoir été trompé sur la personne. Cinquante ans plus tard, on ne trouve pas la moindre trace d’un regret, d’une analyse critique. On découvre, en revanche, la persistance de relations compromettantes qui donnent un éclairage nouveau à des faits tels que le fleurissement de la tombe de Pétain. Tout cela laisse à penser qu’il y a une continuité dans certains choix, la continuité d’un homme de pouvoir qui s’appuie sur des réseaux d’amitiés et de services ".
- " Ce qui me choque c’est qu’il ait pu frayer avec quelqu’un qui a été un outil de l’antisémitisme d’État et un complice de la solution finale du Reich. On ne peut pas tolérer d’être tolérant envers le mal et, pour moi, René Bousquet c’était le mal absolu." François Mitterrand répondra aux questions de Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, l'Humanité
- le témoignage [...] du président de la République s’insère dans le cadre d’un discours de droite, [...] traditionnel sur l’Occupation "
- " qu’on nous montre le dossier de résistance de M. Bousquet, qu’on voit pourquoi cet homme a été non seulement réhabilité mais redécoré, parce que, réellement, c’est incompréhensible pour les jeunes [...] et pour nous-mêmes " humanite.presse.fr, « Mitterrand : réaction de l’historien P. Miquel », 12 septembre 1994
- Franz Olivier Giesbert, La Fin d'une époque
- Anne-Marie Duranton-Crabol, François Mitterrand, les années du changement, p.755-757, and 758-759
- René Rémond, Notre siècle, Fayard, 1988
- Franz Olivier Giesbert, La Fin d'une époque.
- assemblee-nationale.fr, « Histoire de l'Assemblée nationale » - « La Cinquième République (depuis 1958) »