De Gaulle, Mitterrand and French Presidents

De Gaulle and Mitterrand

3 February 2009

I sent in this letter to the Guardian after one attacking Francois Mitterrand sent in by Jonathan Fenby, the distinguished writer and ex-editor who knows France well and lives there part of the time. He was responding to an article by the French journalist, Agnes Poirier, who said that the French socialists need a new Mitterrand. They do in the sense that Mitterrand did pull the French democratic left out of its wilderness and forged a party capable of winning elections. Mitterrand did many dreadful things but so has (and will) every French president as the nature of the monarchical presidency in France confirms Acton’s dictum about the corruption of power. Fenby held up de Gaulle as an alternative but le Géneral also had a a very poor record on many human rights issues, his unilateral nationalism and hostility to the UN and Europe was erratic, and his contempt for social rights or the new mood for democracy in the 1960s led to the 1968 explosions which he never saw coming and fled from in fear. De Gaulle was a great man as was Churchill but his faults were immense. The sad aspect of French democracy is that it does not do politics without an eternal quest for an all-powerful leader, who has to combine the guile of a Mazarin and the ruthless destruction of his enemies of a Napoléon to conquer first political and then state power. Once installed in the Elysée something happens to French presidents and the suite is rarely a pretty sight.
Below the letter as published in the Guardian (3 February 2009):
De Gaulle versus Mitterrand is a fake debate like Churchill versus Attlee (Letters, 2 February). General de Gaulle censored television news, allowed the Algerian war and its horrors to continue four years after he took power, allowed police brutality against striking workers, witheld French contributions to the UN, and had a unilateralist approach to world affairs of which Dick Cheney would approve.
I wrote the first biography of Mitterrand which came out in 1982 and agree with many of Jonathan Fenby's criticisms. But France was a fairer and more just country than the Britain polarised by Thatcherite ideology. For years anti-French smugness has been the diet of the British elite. Mitterrand at least committed France to European construction and in many respects the quality of life and social support is high in France as a result of Mitterrand not embracing Thatcherite ideology.