Although Pierre Mendès France (1907-1982) only held the prime ministry for seven months and spent most of his political career criticizing rather than participating in governments, he was one of the most influential and important figures in 20th-century French politics.
Pierre Mendès France was born in Paris on January 11, 1907. His was a fully assimilated Jewish family that had first come to France from Spain during the Inquisition. By the 19th century the Mendès France family had firmly entered the bourgeoisie; Pierre's father, in fact, was a highly successful merchant who was also a staunch supporter of the Third Republic.
Mendès (he was frequently referred to simply as Mendès) was a brilliant student who was the youngest lawyer in France when he passed the bar. His doctoral thesis on Poincaré's economic policies immediately propelled him into the public eye as one of the first people in France to argue that the state had to coordinate market forces to modernize the woefully backward French economy.
Not surprisingly, the young lawyer soon turned to politics. As a student he had joined the Radical-Socialist Party and headed its youth organization. In 1934 party leaders suggested he run for mayor of Louviers in Normandy, and, much to the surprise of local political observers, he won. In 1936 he was elected to Parliament from Louviers, becoming the youngest member of the Chamber of Deputies. His meteoric rise continued. He was immediately elected chairman of the Customs Committee of the Chamber and was named under secretary of state in the Treasury Department the following year.
Even that early in his career, Mendès France was known for two things—his commitment to modern Keynesian economic policy and his desire for a better blend of effective decision making and popular control over government. Thus he both supported the Popular Front's social reforms and advocated more government intervention in basic macro-and micro-economic policy making.
Mendès France's career was interrupted by World War II. At the outbreak of the war he took a regular army air corps commission and served in the Middle East. France's defeat found him in Paris, and he was one of but 80 members of Parliament to vote against surrender in June 1940. Instead, he and his family left for Morocco to try to continue the war and free France from its German occupiers and the new collaborationist Vichy government. However, he was soon arrested, sent back to France, and put on trial as a traitor. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to six years in jail on August 31, 1940. The following June he escaped from a prison hospital and, upon escaping France, joined General de Gaulle's resistance movement in London. De Gaulle named Mendès to a series of ministerial positions in the government-in-exile and in the provisional governments once France was liberated. In 1946 de Gaulle and Mendès parted ways over the general's failure to endorse Mendès' economic and political view regarding the reconstruction of France.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s the Fourth Republic reverted to the ineffectual politics of "immobilism" that had paralyzed the country before World War II. Mendès grew more critical of the system and found himself further and further from the center of power. As the domestic and international situations worsened, men such as Mendès became more viable candidates for the prime ministry as alternatives to those who seemed incapable of helping France solve its many problems.
Pierre Mendès France finally got his chance after the French army in Vietnam was defeated in 1954. In his investiture speech as prime minister he promised to end French involvement in Indo-China within 60 days and then proceed to major economic and political changes. He succeeded in ending French involvement in Indochina, but that was all. Once that crisis ended, politics returned to normal. His innovative policy proposals were blocked by politicians on the left and on the right, including many members of his own Radical Party. Finally, after less than seven months in office, his government lost a vote of confidence on February 5, 1955, and resigned. Pierre Mendès France never held a major office again.
His first 20 years in politics did convince Mendès France that the system needed a fundamental overhaul. By the end of the 1950s he had left the Radical Party and had helped form the new Unified Socialist Party (PSU). Like many others, he hoped the PSU would reinvigorate the left and help move the country toward what he called a "modern Republic" capable of making humane and efficient economic policy while giving people more control over the decisions shaping their lives.
In 1967 Mendès France was reelected to Parliament, this time from the booming, modern city of Grenoble. In May 1968 he joined the PSU in supporting student and worker demonstrations, but, unlike the young radicals, Mendès could not endorse a revolutionary solution to the crisis. Instead, he and François Mitterrand proposed themselves as prime minister and president respectively in a provisional government to replace the teetering Gaullist regime. That proposal proved a political catastrophe as the right, not the left, won the elections held that June. Mendès even lost his seat in Parliament in the Gaullist landslide.
He then broke with the PSU, which had veered sharply to the left in the aftermath of the "events of May." He joined the new Socialist Party, headed by François Mitterrand, shortly thereafter and was elected to Parliament again in 1973, 1978, and 1981.
By the time the Socialist Party finally won in 1981 Mendès France was too old and too ill to serve in President Mitterrand's cabinet. But, in many respects, the goals of the new government were his—hopes for more coordinated economic policy, government control over growth sectors of the economy, decentralization, and expansion of respect for human rights. By the time he died on October 18, 1982, everyone from left to right realized that a man whose great gifts had never fully been utilized had passed from the scene.
Further Reading on Pierre Mendès France
Unlike most French politicians, there is quite a bit of material on Pierre Mendès France in English. The definitive biography is Jean Lacouture, Pierre Mendès France (1984). For Mendès' own views, the best source is Pierre Mendès France, A Modern French Republic (1962).