30th Anniversary of the Election of Mitterrand: What Can We Learn from the French Socialist Leader?

This article was published by Policy Network 

The meaning of Mitterrand

11 April 2011

Many key problems of the contemporary political sphere, from climate change to bank regulation, must be addressed through a commitment to supranationalism and leadership. With this in mind social democrat’s today would do well to understand the political intellect of a neglected European leader, Francois Mitterrand. Instrumental in the construction of the EU, his character remains opaque and his legacy contested. At the Elysée with a unified Socialist Party he moved Europe towards greater Union and forged deep relations with Germany. Was he on the right or the left? Was he ever a socialist?

Thirty years ago, 10 May 1981, European history changed direction. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was getting into her stride, undoing the post-war mixed economy and welfare state settlement. In Spain, a colonel walked into the Cortes and waved his machine gun in a last desperate attempt to restore authoritarian rule in Spain. And in France, Francois Mitterrand, born in 1916, the same year as British Prime Ministers Edward Heath and Harold Wilson, became France’s first Socialist president, bringing to an end a quarter of a century of right-wing rule in the country.

Today fifteen years after his death, Mitterrand is, to paraphrase Churchill, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, largely unknown to the Anglosphere. In December 1980 Mitterrand went to Washington for a meeting of the Socialist International. The New York Times declined to write a report on this French politician running to be president of France in 1981. For the media world of New York and London Mitterrand was a disreputable, somewhat dodgy political character with a dubious past. All that the panjandrums of the New York Times knew was that Mitterrand had made an alliance with the Communists and would make four of them ministers just as Ronald Reagan was denouncing communism as the ‘evil empire.’ . This misjudgment cost the newspaper a scoop. Five months later Mitterrand was president of the world’s fourth biggest power, and was destined to play a lead role in European and world affairs for a longer period than either de Gaulle remained in the Elysée or F D Roosevelt in the White House. 

Like many major historical figures who have led their country, what we know of Mitterrand is elusive, changing over time and historical perspective. The essential Mitterrand remains like mercury, impossible to grasp. Was he on the right and then moved left? Was he ever a socialist? Interestingly, the same questions have been asked of the next major leader of Europe in the decade after Mitterrand’s death, Tony Blair. Today everybody can agree Blair imposed himself on British, European and world politics, but like Mitterrand no one shares quite the same analysis and conclusions about where he came from, what he did, what he stood for, and what his final place in history will be.

Unlike the ahistorical Blair however, Mitterrand was rooted in French history. If Paris was worth a mass – as Henry IV cynically put it as he switched from Protestantism to Catholicism to gain control of France in the 1580s – then the anti-communist Mitterrand was willing to support an alliance with the French CP as the left collectively mobilised the post-1968 generation of activists clamoring for a change after the long rule of the right.

Mitterrand knew his history. He grew up in provinces in the 1920s in a France obsessed with the Dreyfus affair. He was a student in Paris in the 1930s during the Popular Front government of the Jewish socialist Léon Blum. He was a résistant and an early anti-Gaullist in the 1940s. In the 1950s he served as a Minister with Pierre Mendes-France, as another Jewish leftist dismantled the French empire in Indochina, Morocco and Tunisia. In his later years he spent his Christmas and New Year break at Aswan on the Nile contemplating the temples and tombs of the pharaohs of Egypt.

Mitterrand’s political persona was also rooted in ‘La France Profonde’. The right-wing French writer, Charles Maurras, liked to contrast le pays reel, the country where real Frenchmen lived, with le pays légal, the Paris political class producing laws and speeches for their own self-satisfaction. Mitterrand’s rivals, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac, strived to present themselves as rooted in the countryside, but they could never escape their image as products of ÉNA (École nationale d’administration), established up in 1945 to produce France’s mandarinate. They passed exams where Mitterrand read books. They spoke English whilst Mitterrand only knew French. From an early age they lived in the elegant apartments France provides its high officials. For a quarter of a century before entering the Elysée, Mitterrand spent many of his weekend in his remote constituency staying in a cheap pension. Unlike the current French President’s ostentatious luxury holidays, Mitterrand was happy to go to his modest second home buried deep in the forests of Bordeaux. Paul Quilles, who managed Mitterrand’s 1981 campaign, notes that Mitterrand insisted he would visit all thirty-six thousand of France’s communes during his bid to be president. This was, of course, an impossible ambition, but it illustrates the fact that his metropolitan Parisian style was subordinate to his being a man with his feet on the ground of his country. 

And still the contradictions go on. People look for clues in his political flirtation with populist rightism in the 1930s. After his risk-taking efforts to escape from German prisoner of war camps, what to make of his work for the French state in the non-occupied part of France? Yet he was also a genuine résistant. De Gaulle looked at him askance when he arrived in Algiers because Mitterrand had been flown out of France to London and then taken an RAF plane to meet the leader of the Free French. For de Gaulle it was an unpardonable mistake to fly in an English aeroplane, though his real anger was aimed at Mitterrand’s determination to return to active resistance organisation in France. Undoubtedly Mitterrand kept friends from the 1940s whom a more career focused politician would not have. He was a French E.M Forster to the extent that he preferred not to betray his friends rather than conform to the exigencies of transient politics.

But a politician and a statesman is not, finally, judged by his character but his contribution to history. Mitterrand’s two major contributions were on economic policy and on the construction of Europe.

In May 1981 it seemed the road was open to the more extreme forms of free market capitalism encapsulated in the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They came to power at the end of a thirty year cycle of post-war economic history which the French called ‘Les Trente Glorieuses’. This apparent golden age was a time in which social welfare capitalism sunk deep roots into European society. By the end of the 1970s, post-1945 welfare capitalism had run out of steam. The question became, was there an alternative to the privatised individual greed promoted by Reagan and Thatcher? Mitterrand showed quite clearly that there was. Setting his economic course against all prevailing winds he nationalised industries including banks to create what, in an unhappy metaphor, he called France’s economic force de frappe- the name given to France’s nuclear arsenal. Underneath the carapace of state ownership there was a remarkable installation of young technocrats put in charge of banks and big chemical, pharmaceutical, aerospace and other industrial companies. They turned out to be every bit as competent, innovative and dynamic as their counterparts in Britain and America, thus giving lie to the claim that only shareholder value and an uncontrolled pursuit of salaries and bonuses on the part of bureaucracies were the key to ensuring business success. 

Compared with those of the Thatcherised British economy, the Mitterrand years display very little substantial difference in average growth rates. Britain was in need of very severe reform in 1979, and France was already comfortably ahead of Britain on most economic indices when Mitterrand took over. During the Mitterrand years, 1981-1995, France outperformed Britain in terms of most international comparative indices: on health care, public transport, support for culture and arts and on quality-of-life the Thatcherite revolution made Britain meaner and more miserable compared to Mitterrand’s calmer economic course.

An important moment came in 1983 when Mitterrand turned his back on protectionism, typically the corollary of nationalisation. Similarly, he refused the favorite drug of the British economic policy maker, devaluation. Instead, Mitterrand maintained the French Franc in the European Monetary System on a par with the German Deutschmark. While Mitterrand had no particular knowledge of economics and received conflicting advice from the usual array of “expert” economists, his rejection of protectionist and devaluationist policies was by far the most important economic decision that Mitterrand took. Maintaining parity with the Deutschmark forced modernisastions on the French economy. France could no longer devalue its way out of a lack of exports. It paved the way for a decade of cooperation between France and Germany without parallel in European history, in terms of an unshakable alliance between two major powers across a range of policy areas.

Mitterrand’s second contribution was in the construction of Europe. Belief in Europe and turning that faith into concrete acts are the most memorable legacy of Mitterrand’s 15 years in power. Certainly, he was never starry-eyed and remained pragmatic on aspects of European politics throughout his political life. As late as 1973 when leader of the French Socialist Party Mitterrand supported a policy of abstention in the referendum to endorse British, Irish and Danish entry into the EEC.

His first period in office after May 1981 was similarly unsteady. Helmut Schmidt, who overlapped with Mitterrand for a short period as German Chancellor, complained that he could no longer use English as a common language as he had done with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Mitterrand had different priorities to Schmidt, who was coming to the end of a long period of centre-left rule. The two leaders, for example, disagreed over the brutal repression of the Polish union, Solidarnosc, in 1981. For German social democrats like Willy Brandt and Schmidt, this represented a restoration of stability after an over-adventurous demand for democracy, whereas Mitterrand condemned the dismantling of Solidarnosc and internment of its leaders. While Schmidt clung to détente-style understanding for Moscow and east European communists, Mitterrand insisted that a European future for Poland based on democracy, freedom and independence from Soviet imperialism was the only policy worth endorsing. 

After Schmidt, Mitterrand found an effective partner in the German Christian Democratic politician, Helmut Kohl, who became Chancellor in 1982. As so often in European politics, these two leaders from opposing political groupings appeared to enjoy healthier relations than with their fellow left- or right-wingers. This first period of Mitterrand’s presidency saw a burst of European activity: enlargement to Greece, Spain and Portugal; Jacques Delors was transferred from the French Finance Ministry to run the European Commission; the Single European Act was passed; and France forged a link with the Deutschmark which gave birth to an embryonic single currency as thereafter there was no variation between the Mark and the Franc.

When Kohl faced his first great foreign policy challenge as the installation of Soviet SS20 missiles was countered by the US by bringing Pershing and cruise missiles to Germany, Britain and Italy, Mitterrand knew which side he was on. Mitterrand went to the Bundestag and told Germany that it was Europe’s duty to stand up against Soviet totalitarianism. It was not a speech Mitterrand had to make, but for a beleaguered Kohl it was an extraordinary lifeline. 

Later there was a wobble over German reunification, but Kohl agreed that the frontiers of the new united Germany after the fall of the war would respect the Oder-Neisse line, and there would be no German claims on its former lands in Silesia or Pomerania. Unlike Mrs Thatcher who embarrassed herself through her hostility to the Germany that emerged after the Berlin wall came down, France was seen as a better friend of Germany. In the following year Mitterrand committed himself to the Maastricht Treaty which moved the status of the European community to a fully fledged union. The Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty were the main transfers of power and sovereignty on a shared basis, with the European Commission and Parliament coming to take over many sovereign prerogatives. Mitterrand submitted the Treaty to a referendum, winning narrowly. From that point on the preparations for the euro continued apace, Mitterrand accepting the more narrow German focus on monetary stability. In the 14 years of his presidency Mitterrand’s contribution to the construction of Europe was of the highest order, and he willingly gave up many aspects of French national sovereignty in order to bind his country with its neighbors. 

In the history of Europe outside of wartime alliances there has never been a relationship like the Mitterrand-Kohl partnership. They gave an impetus to European construction equal to those who signed the Treaty of Rome. Mitterrand handled his British would-be nemesis, Mrs Thatcher, very differently. Of her, he said that she had “eyes like Stalin but the voice of Marilyn Monroe”.

When the Falkland Islands was invaded in April 1982 Britain announced it would send a fleet and army across thousands of miles of ocean to try and retake the islands. It was as risky a military enterprise as the world had seen in decades. The first person to call Mrs Thatcher and offer complete support was Francois Mitterrand. As Ronald Reagan’s UN Ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, was hobnobbing with the representatives of Argentina’s anti-semitic and torturing junta at receptions in New York and as the US State Department sought some kind of compromise with the military dictatorship in Buenos Aires, Mitterrand, again sensing the flow of history, understood that this life and death struggle was an important moment for European democracy. If Britain could defeat and humiliate these puffed up generals and colonels in their swaggering uniforms then that would send a powerful signal coursing through Latin America that the year of army rule had to come to an end. Mitterrand told the British prime minister he would give Britain the secrets of France’s feared Exocet missile . Backed by this solid assurance from her richer and more powerful neighbour, Mrs Thatcher could send her fleet down to liberate the Falklands while the “special relationship” with Ronald Reagan was delivering, to begin with, very little. 

Mitterrand was equally skilful over the issue of the EC budget. Mrs Thatcher was obsessed with the large proportion of the budget spent on agriculture, from which Britain benefited very little. Her claim for a rebate was more than justified. Mitterrand however resisted her demands until finally, in 1984, she agreed to a three-fold increase in the EU budget from £11.5bn in 1981 to £34bn in 1990 when Mrs Thatcher was removed as prime minister. According to British myth Thatcher’s rebate was a great victory. But looking at the overall picture she vastly increased Britain’s net contribution. The year the rebate was agreed in 1984, the UK’s net contribution to the EC budget was £656m. By 1990 it had risen to £2.475 billion. Mitterrand looked benignly on Mrs Thatcher’s claim that she had defeated the rest of Europe to secure her rebate. In fact she got pennies, whereas Europe and France got pounds.

Furthermore, Mitterrand persuaded her to support the Single European Act by framing it as just as a market opening process. In reality it in the outcome was a significant sharing of power, and represents the biggest transfer of government power over British trade and economic policy ever seen. Again, he persuaded her to endorse Jacques Delors as European Commission President. She watched in dismay as this social catholic politician who had come from the French trade union movement to be Mitterrand’s Finance Minister set about strengthening the so-called Rhine economic model through his ‘Social Europe’ invention. In harmony with Mitterrand’s state control of the economy, Delors steered Europe away from an individualist free market ideology espoused by Reagan and Thatcher. For the British Prime Minister, whose premiership was defined by the claim “there is no such thing as society”, the Mitterrand-Delors collaboration in Europe was intolerable.

In his 1988 speech on trade union rights to the TUC Delors repudiated the Thatcherite programme. At the same time he buried three decades of Labour euroscepticism as the trade unions and the Labour Party countered Tory hostility to social policy by embracing the European values established by Delors and Mitterrand.

In 1989 at the Paris celebrations of the French Revolution’s bicentenary, Mitterrand poured salt into Mrs Thatcher’s Eurosceptic wounds. President George Bush arrived from America with the keys of the Bastille which Lafayette had consigned for safe keeping to George Washington and gave them back to France. Mrs Thatcher’s gift to celebrate the two centuries of the French Revolution was a first edition of Charles Dickens’ counter-revolutionary novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Whilst the representative of the US sat beside President Mitterrand, Mrs Thatcher was consigned to the fourth or fifth row alongside.

On wider foreign policy issues Mitterrand was a strong advocate for human rights. By mentioning the name Andrei Sakharov at a Kremlin banquet he the Soviet regime on notice. He encouraged the new leaders of post-fascist Europe such as Spain’s Felipe Gonzalez and Portugal’s Mario Soares. He reaffirmed his affinity for the Jewish people with the first ever visit by a French president to a Knesset, while pouring French diplomatic energy into the Oslo Peace Accords.On the other hand, he did terrible things, such as sanctioning a secret squad to blow up the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace ship that was irritating France as it observed the by then pointless nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean.

By the end of his first septennat Mitterrand had buried almost everything contained in his 1964 philippic ‘Un coup d’Etat permanent’, which criticised de Gaulle in unforgiving terms: “There are ministers in France. There are even whispers that we still have a Prime Minister. But there is no longer a Government. It is the president who alone gives or makes decisions.” Twenty-five years later in 1988 Mitterrand become the very de Gaulle as described 1964, who alone decides everything. 

For many, Mitterrand should have quit at the end of his first seven year term of office, but he went on and on. Acting as a kind of majestic figure above politics he nonetheless allowed the corroding influence of private money to undermine French politics. Some of his ministers had their careers destroyed and one, Pierre Beregovoy, committed suicide as a result of the pressure. As we see former French President Chirac on trial today for illicit party funding, the failure of Mitterrand to reform political processes does him no credit. Nor did his decision to change the electoral system to a proportional system which boosted the electoral prospects of Le Pen’s racist National Front Party. Unlike Britain which is a parliamentary republic with a monarch as its head of state, France under Mitterrand just as much as under de Gaulle was transformed into an elective monarchy with no parliamentary balance.

Having arrived in the Elysée in 1981 with a unified Socialist Party that since its establishment in 1971 reshaped the French Left, Mitterrand considered party business secondary to national leadership. He poured his energies into Europe and shared Reagan’s anti-Sovietism, though he felt that history would deal with European communism soon enough and was correct. He had done little traveling and spoke no foreign languages, so the rise of Asia and the transformation of world economic relations under globalisation meant little. French foreign policy was reduced to the rayonnement de la France. He created the Francophonie which was a pale shadow of the more vibrant and self-confident British Commonwealth. He took a paternalistic approach to French client states in Africa, and had no policy for the Mahgreb worthy of the name. Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were allowed to continue under the dictatorship regimes that were set up there. So long as they didn’t bother France, and in the case of Algeria sold gas and oil, Mitterrand had no policy for reform. 

Though he did join the West in opposing Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, France’s traditional support for Serbia meant that the Elysee failed to understand the Balkans War unleashed by the nationalism of Milosevic after 1990. Mitterrand did travel to Sarajevo, but was ultimately unable to overcome a Franco-French perspective that supported Serbia over all the other countries, religions and ethnicities in the region. Thus, the second septennat, 1988-1995, was an unhappy one. As all of Germany’s energy became absorbed by unification there was no continuation of the creative European construction politics of the middle 1980s. 

Finishing his second term in 1995, Mitterrand was clearly in agony from his prostate cancer. I took trade union leaders to meet him in the Elysee in the summer of 1994. He had given up trying to maintain a nice dentition, and sat with his back against the wall, a short stubby man, with pointed black teeth but nonetheless still speaking with passion about the power of multinational capital and how there had to be a social answer to it. Was this socialism? Or was it just a French nationalism thinking that the peasants and workers and people of his country, and by extension the world, were not getting a fair enough deal from the new notables and aristocrats who controlled global capital and extracted profits much as their ancien régime forebears had owned land and extracted rent at the expense of the peoples’ needs?

In the end we shall never know. He could be seen in the bookshops of Paris looking at every new novel, political history or essay. He hired writers like Eric Orsenna, Jacques Attali and Régis Débray to work with him, and promoted young women or his ebullient Culture Minister Jack Lang. It is in history, art, literature that the clues to Mitterrand are to be found. He kept no diary, wrote no memoirs, and took his own life to the grave. We now live with the Mitterrand that each generation has to reinvent and locate and find. It is a shame that the Anglosphere know so little of him. But perhaps its denizens prefer not to admit other models of democracy and other styles of political leadership not only exist, but can produce results.