Former collaborator loyal to a murky past

Francois Mitterrand 1916-1996
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Francois Mitterrand may enter the history books as the figurehead of the modern French Socialist Party but there was nothing straightforwardly left-wing about his political heritage.

Born into a provincial, bourgeois right-wing family, he spent his youth first as an opponent of the Popular Front government of the 1930s and then, for the first three years of the Nazi occupation of France, as an official of the Vichy regime.

He saw his progression from right to left as a symbol of the country's evolution from the ambiguities of war and occupation to the more progressive values of democratic capitalism and European integration. But he never entirely shook off the shadier side of his past, to the consternation and occasional alarm of his Socialist colleagues.

In the last two years of his presidency a flurry of books appeared detailing the young Mitterrand's awkward intimacy with the nationalist, anti-semitic Action Francaise and with some members of the right-wing terrorist group La Cagoule.

What was most remarkable was that the ageing Mitterrand seemed completely at ease with friends he had made in the 1930s and remained unflinchingly loyal to them. The President admitted quite happily to one of his biographers, Pierre Pean, that his circle included members of the Vichy-era interior ministry responsible for rounding up and deporting thousands of Jews.

He even had warm words for Rene Bousquet, the police chief who masterminded the biggest round-up in Paris in 1942 and who was eventually indicted for crimes against humanity before being killed by a lone assassin in 1993.

"He wasn't a fanatical Vichyist, as people have said," Mitterrand, who became a friend in the 1950s, recalled. "I found him rather attractive, direct. It was a pleasure to see him."

It is hard not to see a certain dishonesty at work in such sentiments. How could Mitterrand claim not to have known about the full role Bousquet had played? Nevertheless, there was something curiously consistent about Mitterrand in his near-perverse loyalty to his own past. In his view, the nationalist, anti-Semitic right of the 1930s and 1940s was an essential, if highly problematic, aspect of France that could not simply be dumped into the dustbin of history.

That explains why, as President, he never officially apologised for the crimes of Vichy, and why, for a long time, he continued to send a wreath every year to the tomb of Marshal Petain on the Ile d'Yeu (arguing he had been a First World War hero before turning collaborator).

Mitterrand may not have won any admirers with his idiosyncratic attitude to the past and he almost certainly gave protection to men whom others would have branded common criminals. But, given the great reluctance with which France has faced up to its old demons, perhaps his intransigence had its benefits, too, expressing some uncomfortable and long-hidden truths about the whole of his troubled generation.