The French politician and statesman François Mitterrand (1916-1996) served in different governments under the Fourth Republic (1946-1958) and became a major opponent of Charles de Gaulle under the Fifth Republic beginning in 1958. In 1981 he was elected president of France and served for 14 years—longer than any other head of state in the five Republics since the Revolution of 1789.
François Maurice Adrien Marie Mitterrand was born into a middle-class Catholic family on October 26, 1916, in Jarnac, a small town in southwestern France near Cognac. During his childhood Mitterrand was influenced by his parents' concern for the plight of the poor. In 1934 he traveled to Paris where he entered the University of Paris and pursued degrees in political science and law. The rise of European fascism in the 1930s during his university years attracted Mitterand to attend demonstrations organized by the pro-fascists in 1935 and 1936. After obtaining his degree in law and letters and a diploma from the Ecole Libre des Science Politiques, Mitterand began his mandatory military service in 1938.
Serving as a sergeant in the war, he was wounded and captured near Verdun in May of 1940 by the Germans. After three escape attempts, he fled his Nazi captors and returned to France. There he worked as a minor government official in Marshall Petain's Vichy government which collaborated with the Nazis. In 1943 he enlisted in the French Resistance movement when it became clear that the Nazis would lose the war. He used his position with the government for the Resistance while he headed the National Movement of War Prisoners and Deportees to forge the necessary papers needed in the resistance. Mitterand claimed that his government job had been a cover for his Resistance activities all along. He was awarded the Rosette de la Resistance for his efforts
. At the end of the war he became secretary general for war prisoners and deportees in the provisional government of Gen. Charles de Gaulle. In 1945 Mitterrand was one of the founders of the Democratic and Socialist Resistance Union, a moderate political party with a strong anti-Communist bent.
Legislative and Executive Positions
With the founding of the Fourth Republic (1946-1958), Mitterrand actively entered politics and gained valuable parliamentary experience, being elected a deputy to the National Assembly (1946-1958) and serving in 11 different governments. Under the Fourth Republic his ministerial appointments included minister of war veterans (1947-1948), minister for information (1948-1949), minister for overseas territories (1950-1951), minister of state (1952), minister for the Council of Europe (1953), minister of the interior (1954-1955), and minister of justice (1956-1957).
The founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958 by de Gaulle in the midst of the Algerian independence movement pushed Mitterrand into the opposition and, subsequently, his political thought and leanings gravitated toward the left. He opposed de Gaulle's founding of the Fifth Republic and charged that the general's "new republic" represented a permanent coup d'etat. During the first 23 years of the Fifth Republic, Mitterrand dedicated himself to opposing de Gaulle and his heirs. While no longer holding a ministerial post, he was elected to the Senate (1959-1962) and to the Chamber of Deputies (beginning in 1962). (He was also mayor of Château-Chinon beginning in 1959.) In time Mitterrand came to realize that to defeat de Gaulle the non-Communist left needed to be revitalized and an alliance established with the French Communist Party (PCF).
In the presidential election of 1965 Mitterrand opposed de Gaulle and ran as the candidate of the Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left (FGDS), an alliance of non-Communist leftist parties. Realizing the advantages of electoral cooperation, the Communists backed Mitterrand in this election. Though he was defeated by de Gaulle, in the final round of the presidential contest Mitterrand obtained 44.8 percent of the vote.
Rise of the "Red Rose" Party
The popular appeal of the left, however, was set back by the momentous student-worker revolt of 1968 (the Events of May) and de Gaulle's manipulation of the crisis. Then, partially as a result of the disastrous outcome of the June 1968 legislative elections for the left, Mitterrand resigned as chairman of the FGDS and decided not to run in the 1969 presidential elections. From 1970 to 1971 he headed a political grouping known as the Convention of Republican Institutions. In 1971 he was chosen first secretary of a new Socialist Party (PS) founded in the aftermath of the 1968 revolt and created to replace the old bankrupt Socialist Party (SFIO). The PS, symbolized by a clenched first holding a red rose, eventually catapulted Mitterrand and his Socialist colleagues to power in 1981.
Shortly after assuming the leadership of the PS, Mitterrand and the Socialists agreed to support the Common Program (1972), an electoral alliance and program comprised of the Socialists, the Communists, and the left radicals (MRG). After signing the Common Program, the membership of Mitterrand's new party increased from 75,000 in 1972 to 200,000 in 1981. These numbers encouraged Mitterrand's hope of constructing a large non-Communist left in France. Several days after signing the Common Program, in fact, he declared at an international Socialist congress in Vienna that he wanted "to reconquer an important part of the communist electorate." This bold statement foreshadowed the competition that would develop between the PS and the PCF.
In addition to the competition with the PCF, Mitterrand also had to deal with rivalries developing within the PS itself, a catch-all party that cut across class lines and had three major tendencies or groupings: the radical tradition represented by Mitterrand, the revolutionary socialism of Jean-Pierre Chevènement, and the social democracy of Michel Rocard. After the founding of the PS, Mitterrand adroitly played one tendency against another to maintain his leadership of the party.
Third Try for Presidency Succeeds
After 1972 the rising popularity of Mitterrand's PS encouraged the Socialists but worried the PCF and the majority in power. In the 1973 legislative election the Socialists captured a respectable 18.9 percent of the vote, while the PCF garnered 21.4 percent. Then, in the 1974 presidential elections Mitterrand ran as the standard bearer of the left and almost defeated Valéry Giscard d'Estaing by winning 49.19 percent of the vote in the final round. In the cantonal elections of 1976 the PS became the first party of the French left by capturing 30.8 percent of the vote, while the PCF received only 17.3 percent. Fearing that the Socialists would make even further gains in the 1978 legislative elections at the expense of the PCF, the Communists sabotaged the Common Program on the eve of the elections. Consequently, instead of taking a majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies as predicted earlier, the leftist parties suffered a setback due to their own disunity.
Between 1978 and 1981 the discord between the Socialists and Communists continued, revolving around both domestic and international issues (for example, the crisis in Poland and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). As a result of this breakdown of leftist unity, the PS and the PCF ran separate candidates in the 1981 presidential elections: the Socialists backed Mitterrand and the Communists supported Georges Marchais, head of the PCF. However, Marchais' poor showing in the first round of the elections convinced the PCF to back Mitterrand in the second round. Aided by Communist support and disunity now on the right, Mitterrand toppled Giscard by winning 51.75 percent of the vote. Mitterrand was aided, however, by a number of other factors: Giscard's so-called imperial image, the need for economic and social reform, and the twin problems of unemployment and inflation.
The April/May presidential elections were hailed as historic in France because they ended 23 years of right-wing government under the Fifth Republic. The elections also proved that alternance, or a change in government, was possible under the institutions of the Fifth Republic—a republic that Mitterrand had rejected earlier. The legislative elections held in June of 1981 constituted another historic dimension. In these elections Mitterrand's Socialist Party won an absolute majority of seats in the National Assembly. The year 1981 marked the first time since the French Revolution of 1789 that the left had captured the executive and the legislative branches of government.
An Administration of Reforms
In forming his new government Mitterrand took some noteworthy steps. He chose Pierre Mauroy, the Socialist mayor of Lille, as prime minister. To reward the Communists for their backing and to maintain leftist unity, Mitterrand included four Communist ministers in his government. He also created a Ministry for the Rights of Women and staffed his new ministry with Yvette Roudy, a long-time feminist activist.
Now in power, Mitterrand's government launched a series of reforms designed to change France. A nationalization program was carried out that extended state control over nine industrial groups, including electronics, chemical, steel, and arms industries. Social reforms were also made: the work week was reduced to 39 hours; workers received more rights at their workplace; the retirement age was reduced to 60 years of age; the vacation period was extended to five weeks of paid vacation instead of four; allocations for the elderly, for women that live alone, and for the handicapped were increased; the minimum wage was substantially increased; reimbursement for abortions was provided; a wealth tax was imposed; and approximately 100,000 jobs were created in the public sector.
The Mitterrand government also adopted a number of reforms to strengthen justice for its citizens and residents by abolishing the death penalty, striking down the old ad hoc state security court, amending laws against homosexuals, and trying to regularize the status of France's four million immigrant workers. In addition, the government launched a decentralization program designed to transfer some of the power and decision making from Paris to local regions. Year One of Mitterrand's Socialist experiment was a year of reforms, but an expensive one.
During the first year in power the Mitterrand government pursued a neo-Keynesian reflationary economic policy, believing that "pump priming" would help pull France out of the recession so troubling to the Western world. Yet this policy, coupled with the expensive reforms of the first year, only exacerbated the economic problems in France. Consequently, in June of 1982 Mitterrand was forced to announce that his government would pursue an austerity program. This program involved a second devaluation of the franc, a four-month-long wage and price freeze, an attempt to hold down the public debt, and a cap placed on state expenses. Such a change in economic policy meant that France was now focusing on reducing inflation instead of unemployment. The June 1982 austerity program was followed by even more rigorous austerity measures in March of 1983.
Trouble for the Socialist Government
While Mitterrand and his government enjoyed a "state of grace" during their first year, the austerity programs of 1982 and 1983, accompanied by rising unemployment, contributed to growing opposition in France and decline in the popularity of Mitterrand and his government. The Socialist government also sparked opposition with its educational policy, namely its attempt to gain more control over the 10,000 private, mainly religious, schools in France. Concerns over educational reform as well as a climate of general discontent led to a massive demonstration on June 24, 1984, by more than one million protesters at the Bastille in Paris, constituting the largest public demonstration in France since liberation.
Facing this mounting opposition, plus a setback in the European Parliament elections of June 17, 1984, Mitterrand began to move his government towards the center. The French president made a major television address on July 12, 1984, announcing that he would renegotiate the proposed reform for private schools and that he wished henceforth to consult the French on questions of public liberties through referendums. Then, only six days later the Mitterrand government announced several key resignations from the cabinet. Mitterrand picked Laurent Fabius, a young loyal Mitterrandiste, as his new prime minister. Shortly thereafter, Fabius announced that the government would continue the austerity program in an effort to redress the economic crisis and to modernize France. More austerity, coupled with declining popularity at the polls, led the Communists to refuse to participate in Fabius' cabinet. Mitterrand hoped that these changes would help to defuse the opposition and also prepare the PS for the upcoming 1986 legislative elections and the 1988 presidential elections.
In foreign policy, where the French president exercises enormous power, Mitterrand was both pragmatic and Gaullist in his approach. Strongly anti-Soviet, Mitterrand supported the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decision to begin the deployment of almost 600 new Pershing II and Cruise missiles in Western Europe in 1983. While Mitterrand tried to promote solidarity with members of the NATO alliance, especially West Germany, he closely guarded French autonomy on foreign policy matters. At the same time, Mitterrand supported the idea of a strong and more independent Europe. He, too, tried to encourage a North-South dialogue between the rich and the poor nations and attempted to develop and to strengthen French spheres of influence in the Third World.
The 1986 legislative elections were a blow to the Socialists. They lost their majority in the National Assembly to the rebuilt Gaullist Party, now called the Rally for the Republic (RPR). As a result Mitterrand had to give the office of prime minister to the RPR leader, Jacques Chirac. It was the Fifth Republic's first government divided between a Socialist president and a conservative legislature (called "co-habitation" in France).
Mitterand's most ambitious and visible projects were to order the construction of $6 billion of public buildings and in 1986 to a work with Great Britain to build the Channel Tunnel ("Chunnel") linking Europe's mainland with Great Britain. Scandal and accusations of corruption plagued the Mitterand presidency. His private presidential police force was accused of illegally tapping the phones of judges, journalists, senior officials, and even the prime minister. A 1994 biography Une Jeunesse Francaise (Youth of a Frenchman) brought his early career back to haunt him. In particular he was criticized for maintaining his friendship with Rene Bousquet, the Vichy police chief who deported thousands of French Jews to Germany's death camps.
Although he married Danielle Gouze, whom he had met while working for the Resistance, in 1944, Mitterand was rumored to have several mistresses. The Mitterands had two sons. In 1994 it was revealed that Mitterand's mistress and their daughter had been living at state expense in an annex to the Elysee Palace.
In 1992 Mitterand discovered he had prostate cancer. After undergoing chemotherapy, he managed to complete his term in office, but decided not to seek a third term. He died on January 8, 1996 at age 79.
Further Reading on François Mitterrand
A critical assessment of Mitterrand's political ascendancy in France can be found in Wayne Northcutt, The French Socialist and Communist Party Under the Fifth Republic, 1958-1981: From Opposition to Power (1985). For a sympathetic biography of Mitterrand, see Denis MacShane, François Mitterrand: A Political Odyssey (1982). The most authoritative biography in French on Mitterrand is Franz-Olivier Giesbert's François Mitterrand: ou la tentation de l'histoire (1977). An excellent analysis of Mitterrand's Socialism in action is found in Philip G. Cerny and Martin A. Schain (editors), Socialism, the State and Public Policy in France (1985).
Prior to assuming the presidency, Mitterrand authored a number of books, mainly political memoirs and essays: Aux frontières de l'Union française (At the Frontiers of the French Union, 1953); Le Coup d'Etat Permanent (The Permanent Coup d'Etat, 1964); Ma part de vérité (My Part of the Truth, 1969); Changer la vie (Change the Way of Life, 1972); La Paille et le grain (The Wheat and the Chaff, 1975); Politique, 1938-1981, 2 vols. (Politics, 1977 and 1981); L'Abeille et l'architecte (The Bee and the Architect, 1978); and Ici et maintenant (Here and Now, 1980). See also French Revolutionary Life, February 1996.