World Perspective / FRANCE : Book on Young Mitterrand as a Rightist Leaves Many Shocked


In almost 50 years in political office, the last 13 in the Elysee Palace, President Francois Mitterrand has carefully shielded his past, cultivating an image of intellectual rigor and compassion, aloofness and inscrutability. He has been, in other words, the Frenchman’s Frenchman.

But these days the 77-year-old president, with just nine months left in office and in ill health, is putting dents in the very image he created.

To the shock of many in France, where political mysteries often go to the grave, Mitterrand has cooperated with a writer whose book, released last week, portrays this socialist icon and Resistance fighter as: a supporter of right-wing causes before World War II; a willing participant at first in the Vichy government, and a devoted lifelong friend to the Vichy police chief who ordered the arrest and deportation of tens of thousands of Jews.


“A French Youth--Francois Mitterrand 1934-1947,” by Pierre Pean, has created a stir across the country with its text--and its cover photo. It shows a young Mitterrand shaking hands in 1942 with Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, the head of the Vichy government that collaborated with the Nazis in World War II.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for the French is the willingness of Mitterrand, the country’s longest-serving president, to showcase the past that he had declined to discuss and risk clouding the image many in France have of him.

Author Pean says Mitterrand just wanted to come clean. “At the threshold of his entry into history, the time had come to lay everything out at the end of his last term,” Pean has told newspapers here.

Indeed, Mitterrand, who recently underwent a second operation relating to his prostate cancer, said in an interview published in Paris on Thursday that he would not have time to write an autobiography.

Pean’s book, hailed by critics as exceptionally evenhanded, covers Mitterrand’s early years, from ages 18 to 31. It documents, through letters and interviews with Mitterrand, the young man’s decision to become an active member of the ultranationalist movement Croix de Feu (Cross of Fire) in the 1930s.

Pean and Mitterrand explain his support for the far right as a natural result of the president’s upbringing in a provincial, devoutly Roman Catholic and bourgeois family. And Pean points out that Mitterrand never supported anti-Semitic activity and never belonged to La Cagoule (the Hood), the extreme right-wing group that staged terrorist attacks in prewar Paris.


“In those troubled times, especially when one is young, it is very difficult to make choices,” Mitterrand is quoted in the book. “I managed to come out of it rather well. It is unjust to judge people from errors which are explained by the atmosphere of the times.”

The book also describes Mitterrand’s escape from a German prison camp in 1941, before he went to work for the Vichy government, as at least partly the result of his boundless passion for a young woman, to whom he wrote 2,400 letters over a three-year period. She later broke off their engagement.


After his return, Pean writes, Mitterrand went to work as a civil servant in the Vichy government in a sincere show of support for Petain, then a popular World War I hero.

Pean maintains that Mitterrand was not pro-German but “simply a Petainist.” In 1943, Mitterrand began using his job as cover for his Resistance work, earning the praise of Gen. Charles de Gaulle as a liberation leader.

For younger generations in France, the wartime collaboration was a black-and-white issue. But many others who lived through the war agree with Mitterrand that politics then was a more complex business. And that has been debated hotly this year, the 50th anniversary of the liberation of France.

Many in France can understand Mitterrand’s continued warm feelings for the late Petain. Yet they have trouble understanding his friendship with Rene Bousquet, the Vichy policy chief who ordered the arrest and deportation of tens of thousands of Jews and whose funeral the president attended in 1986.