Book review: Mitterrand. A Study in Ambiguity, By Philip Short

A penetrating study of a president that captures his extravagant complexities

François Mitterrand was France's last monarch. He was a Socialist monarch, in theory. That was just one of his dazzling array of contradictions. As justice minister in the 1950s, Mitterrand condoned torture during the Algerian war of independence. As a candidate, he championed human values and decried the power of money. As President of the Republic (1981-1995), he connived with state terrorism and maintained a coterie of dubious business friends.

During the 1939-45 war, he was one of the few people to have had private audiences with both Philippe Pétain and Charles de Gaulle. He was decorated for his work for the collaborationist regime in Vichy. He went on to become a courageous Resistance leader. Mitterrand's life (1916-1996) encompassed much of the 20th century. In France, he defined its final decades. He was a father of, inter alia, the Euro, the Channel Tunnel, the French Socialist party, the Louvre pyramid and the post-war revival of the Cannes film festival

His zig-zag political and economic record created, or compounded, many of the problems from which France still suffers. He also dismantled much that was archaic and stultifying and secretive in the France of Charles de Gaulle.And yet, Mitterrand while president maintained two marriages and two families , one official, one clandestine, at the state's expense. He set up his own police dirty-tricks unit within the Elysée palace. He disguised his cancer from the French public for more than a decade.

Philip Short's brilliantly researched and written biography – the first thorough account of Mitterrand's life in English – captures the extravagant complexity of the man. It also, without fanfare, adds much new material. Short has interviewed both of Mitterrand's wives, his "official" wife Danielle before she died two years ago, and the woman with whom he actually lived for three decades, Anne Pingeot.

Their insights are scattered throughout the book, bringing alive, without prurience, the sub-plot of Mitterrand's energetic private life. Having two wives did not discourage him from frequent love affairs. Why did either woman put up with it? Pingeot who has rarely spoken publicly before, suggests that the oddity of the arrangement, was part of its joy. "It was 32 years of happiness. And unhappiness!," she said.

Short, a former BBC correspondent in Paris and the author of well-received biographies of Pol Pot and Mao, also turns up much fascinating material from official archives and the voluminous French literature on the Mitterrand years. There are verbatim records of private conversations between the French president and foreign leaders including two British prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Mitterrand's record in foreign affairs, despite a near-criminal lapse in Rwanda in 1994, was largely good. He often stood up to Washington but was described by Henry Kissinger as "a very good ally. The best of all the French presidents." He tussled with "Dear Margaret" over Europe but offered her invaluable support during the Falklands war.

In opposition, Mitterrand fought and screamed against De Gaulle's Fifth Republic which he called "a permanent coup d'état", a vehicle for undemocratic personal power. In office, he was the only other president in the last half century to recreate De Gaulle's monarchical blend of authority and immunity from the banalities and dangers of daily government. Giscard proved too clumsy and too haughty; Chirac too lovably roguish; Sarko too frenetic and self-regarding; Hollande too inert and too chummy. Times have also changed, partly because Mitterrand changed them. By freeing French radio and TV from state control, he ended the semi-democratic paternalism of De Gaulle's France. By keeping his illness and his double marriage secret, he shamed the French media into taking a more challenging and inquisitive view of its subsequent leaders.

Mitterrand mesmerised France because his ambiguities, hypocrisies, loyalties, friendships, passions, betrayals, infidelities and wilful lapses of memory were those of an entire generation of French men and women. Since then France has become simpler; or perhaps more complicated in a different way.

No politician could now hope to get away with a semi-detached Mitterrand presidency (or a second family). And yet none of his successors have managed to redefine the office. Mitterrand was the last French monarch but France has yet to abolish the monarchy.