Mitterrand's last word on his role in Vichy

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The Independent Online
Three and a half months after his death, France's former president, Francois Mitterrand, still lies uneasy in his grave. With his relatives blocking publication of a book that claims he misled the French public about his cancer, and his widow's not always flattering memoirs still on the best- seller list, his own recollections have now appeared in two slim volumes which are distinguished by the elegance of the language and the lavishness of the author's self-justification.

He completed the books, published today, only in the final days of his life and they contain his last words on the two big controversies that marked his later years: claims that he collaborated with the Vichy regime and accusations that he "misread history" by resisting the reunification of Germany.

On the unification of Germany, Mitterrand comes out fighting and appears to have been stung by the accusation that he misread history. The first time he broached the question in public, he says, was during a visit to Moscow in July 1989. He knew that his hosts strongly disapproved of unification - and implies that it would have been bad manners to disagree.

He charts his statements, interviews and articles between then and the day - again in Moscow - where the Allied powers finally approved the end of Germany's division, insisting all the time that he did not oppose unification, but merely laid down necessary conditions. "If moving towards unification was legitimate, that still did not mean that it should come about just anyhow," he says, insisting that it should be "peaceful and democratic". The only real disagreement with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, he claims, was over recognition of the German-Polish border along the Oder-Neisse line, but insists that they managed to preserve good relations despite this.

If I could be accused of anything, Mitterrand says, "it was that I did not jump through the window of the first carriage of the train [of history] ... but if I was left on the platform, so were a lot of other people."

On his connections with the Vichy regime, Mitterrand is ambivalent, while making every effort to appear forthright and reasonable. He presents himself as an eternal rebel, who bucked any curb on his freedom, while appreciating a strong leader when he saw one. Hence his decision to serve the Resistance in France rather than abroad, and his growing contempt for Marshall Petain - for "perpetually compromising".

For his decision to settle in Vichy after escaping from Germany in 1942, and his acceptance of a job ("only on contract") with the Vichy regime, his only defence is rhetoric: "What am I reproached with? Of not having been in the resistance in 1940, when I was in prison in Germany? Of being press-ganged by Vichy to take a high-level post for pay equivalent to less than today's minimum wage? Of having breathed the air of this town for a few months - air that many others gulped down and suffered no ill effects from?"

Mitterrand has admiration, but also misgivings about, General Charles de Gaulle. Only De Gaulle, he suggests, could have united the resistance and emerged as France's liberator. But, he argues, if De Gaulle's resistance appeal from London had not been mythologised in the way it was, "De Gaulle would not have been able to obscure the internal resistance, whose role has been systematically and unjustly played down."

In one anecdote Mitterrand sums up the chancy atmosphere of the time. Returning to Paris in 1943 as "Resistance agent Morland", he was stopped by the officers looking for blackmarket goods. His case contained a British pistol and cyanide capsules. It was examined, and handed back: "No butter, no eggs? On your way!"