Mitterrand lifts veil on his Vichy 'service'

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The Independent Online
LAST year, when two films about Vichy France appeared, Le Monde described the celluloid renditions of French collaboration with the Nazis as 'the end of a taboo'. Yesterday, the end of the taboo received an appendix, a book recounting how one man flirted with the far right and worked for Vichy: Francois Mitterrand.

A French Youth: Francois Mitterrand 1934-1947 was written by Pierre Pean and it tells how President Mitterrand not only was once an apparently loyal servant of Vichy - where he was awarded 'La Francisque', the regime's main decoration - but had belonged to the far right as a young man. The Francisque was awarded to candidates who not only could demonstrate their loyalty to Marshal Philippe Petain, the Vichy leader, but also prove pre-war activity serving the 'principles of (Vichy-minded) national revolution'.

Earlier this year, the press published details of how, long after the war, Mr Mitterrand was in touch with Rene Bousquet, the Vichy police chief who was assassinated in Paris in June last year.

The surprises of which Mr Mitterrand, 77, is capable, however, never cease. In this case, detail which would be devastating for almost any other politician has surfaced because Francois Mitterrand himself gave it to the author.

A photograph taken at 5pm on 15 October 1942 showing Mr Mitterrand and a friend talking with none other than Petain himself in his offices in the Hotel du Parc at Vichy provides the main cover picture of the book. It was given to the author by the widow of the friend, Marcel Barrois, after Mr Mitterrand gave her permission to release it. Its publication followed much whispered speculation that Mr Mitterrand and Petain had met.

Barrois was to die in a camp in Germany. In Petain's diary, the meeting on 15 October 1942 was with the 'Mutual Assistance Centre of the Allier' department, an ex- prisoners of war organisation that Mr Mitterrand was later to use as a cover for a Resistance group. While Mr Mitterrand's association with Vichy and subsequent work for the Resistance might cause little surprise - many anti-Nazi fighters used the cover of respectable positions in government service to gather information for clandestine activities - little had hitherto been mentioned about Mr Mitterrand's pre- war links with the far right.

Pean said he first met Mr Mitterrand in 1990, when the President invited him to discuss one of his earlier historical works. Last year, Pean asked to see Mr Mitterrand and told him he intended to write an account of his youth and wartime years. 'Is it useful?' Mr Mitterrand asked, according to Pean. He added: 'I've nothing to hide. I'll help you.' Pean said the President told him: 'In troubled times, it's difficult to make the right choice. I didn't come out of it too badly.'

One of the two sponsors for Mr Mitterrand's 'Francisque' was Gabriel Jeantet, a member of Petain's staff and a former member of the pre-war 'La Cagoule' (The Hood), a secret right-wing organisation set up to topple the republic before the war. Pean documents the future Socialist President's participation in a number of far-right demonstrations in the 1930s.