Mitterrand's past still raises questions

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The Independent Online
IN A state almost akin to shock, France awoke yesterday to mixed reviews of perhaps the most remarkable evening in the nation's television history: for an hour and a half, Francois Mitterrand had discussed the cancer which threatens to shorten his presidency, and his days under the Vichy regime.

Not so long ago, the French head of state was assured of an easy passage on television. The questions were respectful and bore all the signs of being rehearsed, even approved in advance. On Monday evening, however, Mr Mitterrand, who will be 78 next month, discussed not only his illness but was pushed to explain ambiguities about his behaviour under the German occupation. 'For the first time,' said Jean-Pierre Raffarin, spokesman for the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), 'a presidential broadcast dealt with the past of a man rather than the future of the country'.

For Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, Mr Mitterrand veered from 'the pathetic' to 'a moment of very great courage'. But, he said, the formula allowed Mr Mitterrand to avoid dealing with the present, with issues such as 'the moral blanket he placed over Socialist corruption'. This 'corruption' ranged from allegations of illegal Socialist Party funding to the charges for business irregularities against Bernard Tapie, the entrepreneur who was a minister in the last Socialist government.

Viewers calling breakfast radio shows were almost universally indignant that the President had been questioned about his illness. While Mr Mitterrand expressed his determination to stay on until the end of his term next May, he said he would step down if his prostate cancer made it impossible for him to continue as President.

The publication of a new book A French Youth; Francois Mitterrand 1934-1947 by Pierre Pean two weeks ago caused controversy because, relying on documents and information which Mr Mitterrand supplied, it depicts a young man of the right who, after being a prisoner of war in Germany, returned to France in 1942 to work for the Vichy collaborationist regime before joining the Resistance for which he took considerable risks. All this was available previously but seems to have taken his Socialist Party by surprise.

While Mr Mitterrand acknowledged the various twists of his biography, some of his answers were less than satisfactory. After escaping from Germany in 1942 and returning to France, he said he was unaware that Vichy had passed anti-Jewish legislation. Liberation said this was scarcely credible, especially as Mr Mitterrand was a lawyer. 'During trips to Paris, he might have noticed some passers- by wearing a yellow star,' the daily newspaper said.

As for his social fraternising with Rene Bousquet, the Vichy police chief responsible for the most infamous deportation of Jews from Paris, Mr Mitterrand said their post-war acquaintance developed after Bousquet, not then accused of the 1942 Vel d'Hiv roundup of 11,884 Jews, had been cleared of war crimes. Mr Mitterrand said he stopped seeing Bousquet in 1986 after new charges were laid. Bousquet was shot dead at his Paris home last year. Bernard Kouchner, the former Socialist minister for humanitarian action, said: 'it would be good if the President, just once, said 'I was wrong'. I was waiting for that on Bousquet but he didn't say it.'

One of the toughest judgements came from the Nazi-hunter, Serge Klarsfeld, who said that when Mr Mitterrand returned from Germany, 'Vichy was the good life for this little civil servant. He didn't ask himself questions about the status of Jews. His Vichy past is the source of his political fortune'.