FRANCOIS Mitterrand is today a lame duck president in poor health, cohabiting with a right-wing government backed by a massive parliamentary majority. But his lengthy political career spans the whole of post-war French politics and, as a statesman of first rank, Mitterrand certainly deserves a full-scale biography in English.
Alistair Cole's book is scarcely that. Though his publisher claims it is 'the first in-depth political biography' (conveniently ignoring all those written by French authors) it is more an academic textbook. Instead of adopting the conventional chronological approach, much of it is divided into a series of essays on aspects of Mitterrand's leadership - 'The Party Leader', 'The President', 'The European Statesman' - so reducing the flavour and pace. More seriously, the reader does not get a real impression of the pressures of political life. Despite these limitations, Cole's well researched book should stimulate debate on Mitterrand's contribution to his times.
Mitterrand often seemed like the supreme political tactician, ready to compromise principles in the pursuit of power. He has been called an old fox, a sphinx, a Machiavellian prince. As evidence, critics point to episodes such as his initial espousal of Vichy before becoming a Resistance leader; the 1959 Observatory affair in which Mitterrand was accused of setting up a fake attempt on his own life; his opportunistic intervention in May 1968 when he called for the replacement of de Gaulle; his support of centralising socialism in the Seventies, when it suited his electoral strategy, and his adoption of a more social democratic approach after 1983, when conditions changed.
But, as Cole points out, an assessment of Mitterrand that concentrated solely on his ambiguities would be seriously misleading. Mitterrand, who draws strength from his rural provincial roots, has a core of values and ideas that have helped to shape his political career - support for liberal democracy, social reform, national achievement and culture, and European integration. These underlying beliefs have been accompanied by perseverance and courage of a high order. After ministerial office under the Fourth Republic, Mitterrand spent 24 years in the wilderness. He was one of the few politicians who consistently opposed the General. His gamble in standing against de Gaulle for the presidency in 1965, when he won a creditable 45 per cent of the vote, could have backfired disastrously.
And Mitterrand has a number of impressive achievements to his credit. Accepting the logic of the Gaullist system, he united the left under socialist rather than communist leadership, capturing the presidency in 1981. Undoubtedly, France under Mitterrand has become more unified. Mitterrand's two presidential victories and the social reforms that his governments introduced, especially in the early 1980s, have given workers and the less well-off a greater stake in French society.
As a European statesman Mitterrand, in alliance with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, has been a key initiator in the creative burst that led to the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty. Ironically, his greatest achievement was nearly rejected by his own people in the 1992 referendum from which he sought to gain politically. Even so, more than any other leader, he reconciled the French to their European destiny. And even if events during his second term - especially German unification and the collapse of the Soviet Union - caught him off guard, both France and Europe have benefited from the Presidency of Francois Mitterrand.
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