If you can imagine Richard Nixon without his pathological unease—that is, a Nixon who was all dispassionate sang-froid and opportunistic mastery, the way he so desperately wanted to be seen—then you have a fair picture of Francois Mitterrand. I don't recall that the parallels between these two near contemporaries got much attention from the U.S. commentariat during their lifetimes, partly because we're not in the habit of comparing our own chief executives—however benighted—to foreign ones. But for American readers of Philip Short's A Taste For Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of Francois Mitterrand (Henry Holt, $40), the doppelganger effect of Mitterrand's setbacks, gambles, pragmatic self-reinventions and survivalist ploys is a bit eerie.
His 14 sphinxlike years as president of France (1981-1995) outdid any French ruler since Napoleon III in longevity. Despite its somewhat trashy title, Short's richly detailed, never dull bio is a spellbinder for anyone interested in 20th-century European history. Mitterrand's ideological peregrinations seem to touch on every electric current—not to mention third rail—galvanizing French politics from the 1930s through the '80s, beginning with his Catholic and conservative prewar upbringing and the still disputed dual role he played during the German occupation of France in World War II.
After being taken prisoner and then escaping in the military debacle of 1940, he became a minor official in the Vichy puppet regime, emerging as a spokesman for French POWs still in Nazi captivity. Rather magnificently, his great postwar electoral antagonist—Charles de Gaulle, of course—refused to publicize a wartime photograph of the young Mitterrand hobnobbing with Marshal Petain. "This man may one day, perhaps, be President of France," de Gaulle declared. "Let us not sully him."
At least by 1943, Mitterrand was also active in the Resistance. But either way, his essentially careerist long-term agenda wasn't in much doubt. According to Short, "he spoke of the need to 'get oneself credentials' so as to be able to 'do something once the war is over.'" Conveniently, the POWs whose special concerns he'd been deputized to deal with by both Vichy and the Free French became his first political base.
However nebulously, the war had converted him to a man of the non-communist Left, but it was a Left in shambles. Nonetheless, under the Fourth Republic, Mitterrand held ministerial posts no less than 11 times, which says something for his ability to insinuate himself—and to equivocate on flashpoint issues, France's torture-tainted war in Algeria included. (As always, the career came first: "One can't keep resigning all the time," he once grumped to a journalist.) But his 1950s c.v. says a lot more about the Fourth Republic's revolving-door ineffectuality. Short does a first-rate job of guiding us through the cronyism, petty rivalries, and ostrich mindset of those generally dismal years.
When de Gaulle's return to power in 1958 swept aside the whole works and inaugurated the Fifth Republic in its place, Mitterrand—then still only in his forties—already looked like "yesterday's man." He was further discredited by the most ludicrous episode of his career: the "Observatory Affair," a staged right-wing attempt on his life in which he turned out to have been complicit. (Apparently, some people will do damn near anything for credentials.) Yet he resuscitated himself to the point of becoming de Gaulle's major opponent when Le General ran for re-election in 1965. It was a campaign he was destined to lose, but Mitterrand was nothing if not patient.
Sixteen years later, when he finally assumed power as the head of France's first "authentically left-wing" regime since the short-lived Popular Front of the 1930s, Mitterrand—proclaiming "We've started the true rupture with capitalism," and talk about famous last words—launched a program that wasn't far short of utopian: shortened work weeks, early retirement, nationalization of banks and key industries, the works. How to pay for it all didn't interest him much: "Statesmen don't need to be economists," he grandly said.
Predictably, though, the financial sector's panic and the realities of an economy in recession soon obliged him to retrench. The hodgepodge that resulted turned out to be his most durable domestic achievement, effectively bidding goodbye to the French left's revolutionary tradition. "Instead of a rupture," as Short assesses his first term, "Mitterrand had brought reconciliation. . . [the left] had learned to live with what it had previously denounced as the misdeeds of the capitalist economy." It's not quite Nixon going to China, but it's close.
However, under the Fifth Republic's constitution—customized for de Gaulle's purposes—only foreign policy and defense were the President's exclusive bailiwicks. (During the period of "cohabitation" when the neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac was Prime Minister, Mitterrand was often simply cut out of the loop, and had to scrounge to find out what the rest of the government was up to.) Building on de Gaulle's example, he grasped that the best way to assert France's major-power status was to piss Americans off. An acquiescent ally was a negligible factor in U.S. calculations—that's the main reason we favor docility, after all—but an adversarial and persnickety one was guaranteed to make waves.
To revisit the crises of those years from Mitterrand's perspective is fascinating. The Middle East's intractabilities, Reagan's Star Wars initiative, the European Union's embryo days, the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification all challenged even his serpentine gifts for combining private dickering with public room to maneuver. Short gives us an uncommonly vivid sense of the role personality plays on the international stage; the portraits of Mitterrand's dealings with Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, among others, are sharp and often funny. George H.W. Bush may come off worst; there's a marvelous moment when Mitterrand presses him to explain NATO's purpose now that the Soviet Union is history, and poor Poppy flounders before confessing, "We don't know who the enemy is any more." Mitterand's silky reply says it all about Washington's post-Cold War confusions: "Yes, it's a nuisance not having an enemy."
One virtue of Short's bio is how well-rounded it is. He's at home with the international big picture and the arcana of French politics, but he's just as attentive to the convolutions of Mitterrand's private life, from the cancer he kept hidden from the public when it was diagnosed just months into his first term to the entire second family he maintained behind the scenes with his longtime mistress, Anne Pingeot. Almost incredibly, their daughter was named Mazarine—in honor of Cardinal Mazarin, Richelieu's successor and one of Mitterrand's models in guile.
Throughout, the book's persistent concern is to elucidate the psychology of a man so compulsively devious and remote that his brother-in-law marveled, "Why such mistrust? No one is born like that." Among 20th-century French leaders, only Charles de Gaulle outdoes Mitterand in mystique, and Short has a nice formula for the essential difference between them: "One was the stuff of Shakespearean drama, the other of Racine." As huffy as le grand Charles would be to find himself reassigned to some scribbler from perfidious Albion, that sounds about right.