[Publisher's Note] | Mitterand's Centenary, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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[Publisher's Note]

Mitterand’s Centenary


"Mitterand remains an emblematic figure for President François Hollande, who is trying to attach himself to his predecessor as he tanks in the polls."

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on November 7, 2016. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

One can find much to deplore in the life of François Mitterand, whose centenary passed on October 26: his work for Marshal Pétain during World War II, his postwar loyalty to René Bousquet and other figures linked with Vichy France, and the famous attentat de l’Observatoire, the Observatory Avenue attack, in which Mitterand himself, for political profit, is believed to have orchestrated a fake attempt on his life. One could also look down on him for the way he conducted his private affairs—his countless mistresses, who he would unceremoniouslydrop without really breaking offwith them—and for his behavior toward his allies and his constituents, who he would keep waiting for hours without explanation. The great man’s arrogance and selfishness can be irritating.

A story that particularly aggravates me is recounted by Laure Adler in her book François Mitterand, journées particulières (Flammarion) and concerns Mitterand’s choice of campaign headquarters when he was running as theSocialist Party candidate in the 1974 presidential race. “To the great astonishment of certain militants, Mitterand’s team sets up shop in the Tour Montparnasse,” a symbolic insult not only to the gracious architecture of Paris but also to the traditional conception of socialism. According to Adler, “the oldest members stress that a big alteration of scale was taking place in those days, and that the technical sophistication of the young ENA (National School of Administration) graduates, along with the arrival of the ‘communications pros,’ changed the game: politics became a highly specialized profession and a world in which brilliant, ambitious young people wanted to make their careers.” And, indeed, the Socialist Party, following Mitterand’s inclinations, was beginning its transformation into a party of executives and intellectuals, a party largely divorced from the working class and the common people; i.e., those most in need of protection against economic liberalism. The party was starting to change, in short, into the Socialist Party of today, which is outdistanced by the right-wing National Fronta party that profits from the anger of the unemployed and the disillusioned, who feel abandoned by the official left.

Nevertheless, Mitterand remains an emblematic figure for President François Hollande, who is trying to attach himself to his predecessor as hetanks in the polls. In an intraparty primary that he’s probably going to lose, Hollande is focused on placing himself in the wake of a politician whose tactical aptitude was extraordinary. At a recent ceremony held inside the Louvre Pyramid in remembrance of Mitterand, Hollande praised the former president’s “fierce will” and paid particular homage to the ideological flexibility that got Mitterand reelected to the presidency for a second term: “He was attacked by the right for being a leftist, and by a part of the left for not being left enough.”

To be sure. But sailors know that a little boat can be submerged in the wake of a bigger one, and at the European level, Mitterand’s wake is precisely what has engulfed his socialist successor and threatens to drown him. Mitterand stood godfather to the Europe of the euro and of German austerity. With the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which established the European Union and, eventually, the euro, he tied France to a single currency, beyond national and democratic control, and to a foolishly rigid policy that prohibits any fiscal deficit over 3percent of GDPin the name, naturally, of economic and social stability. According to the American economist Joseph Stiglitz (in his book The Euro), the reality is exactly the opposite: “The Maastricht restrictions on fiscal deficits can effectively be an automatic destabilizer. As tax revenues plummet [for example, in the period following the 2008 crisis], when the 3 percent deficit target is breached, there have to be cutbacks in expenditures, which lead to further declines in GDP.” So here’s France, in a state of permanent instability ever since the inauguration of the euro in 2000, with an unemployment rate near 10 percent. Here’s France, suffering from industrial relocation that has demoralized an entire generation of workers and stripped them of their confidence in the future. Here’s France, dominated by the European Central Bank—which is itself dominated by Berlin—and deprived of the fiscal tools it could use to improve the health of the country.

I noted with interest the lively polemic that followed the publication of a collection of “conversations” with Hollande, Un président ne devrait pas dire ça, (A President Shouldn’t Say That) (Wipf andStock). Eithernarcissistic or downright stupid, this collection goes hand-in-hand with the recent publication of love letters from François Mitterand to Anne Pingeot, his clandestine mistress for more than thirty years. These books are two literary titbits that gloss over the contemporary collapse of the French left. Laure Adler convincingly describes Mitterand’s determination, his eagerness to conclude the Maastricht Treaty with the then German chancellorHelmut Kohl. He’d given his all, in December 1991, to realize “his greatest ambition… Ever since 1984, Mitterand had been walking at Kohl’s side, lavishing friendship on him unreservedly, calling him up for no good reason, introducing him to some of his favorite Parisian restaurants…” Sounds like a pair of lovers. The “Franco-German” couple and their child, the euro, are François Mitterand’s odd legacy, a legacy more important even than Mazarine, the long-hidden daughter he had with Anne Pingeot. François Hollande’s lot is to suffer that legacy’s consequences.

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