In the End, It Is a Question of Character

September 15, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris -- In the end, it is a question of character. During nearly a half-century Francois Mitterrand built a political career founded on ambition and dominated by his sense of rivalry with Charles De Gaulle.

He is nearing the end of his second seven-year term as president of the Fifth French Republic, which De Gaulle founded. De Gaulle failed to complete a full term, resigning in 1969 as old age closed on him, and in the aftermath of the popular upheaval of May 1968.

Mr. Mitterrand now is old too, and very ill from prostate cancer. He said last week of his illness, ''I think that it will be obliging enough to allow me to finish my mandate'' -- next March. He said that to die was less a concern to him than no longer to live, as he has books he wants to write. ''But a book takes time, and I no longer have much of that.''

He is old and ill, and now he sees that his effort to control how history will regard him has failed. He recently allowed himself to be interviewed for a book on his youth and the war years. Last week he gave two long newspaper interviews dealing with the same subjects. Monday he was interviewed for an hour and a half on television. The result has been an abrupt disintegration of his reputation, and of the authority of his presidency as well.

He has attempted to explain his connection to France's wartime Vichy government, his right-wing associations as a young man and his lasting relationship with Rene Bousquet, head of the Vichy police, who was accused of crimes against humanity in 1983 and held to be responsible for the dispatch of French and foreign Jews to Nazi death camps.

The president's response to the television questioning was defiant and seemingly calm, although his hands constantly twisted. Yet as the evening went on what began as an interview became an interrogation, and Mr. Mitterrand's answers became a plea for sympathy -- that he be judged with consideration for his family and upbringing, the context of the times, his constant commitment, he said, to social justice. He insisted that he was at peace with himself, and that he hoped to be regarded as having done more in his life that was positive than was negative.

Everyone had known that Mr. Mitterrand was compromised by having served Marshal Petain until 1942. Later he was part of the Resistance. However, his conversion turns out to have come only in 1943, when the tide of the war had changed, and his conduct in the Resistance served to launch his postwar political career.

His comments on Vichy were equivocal. He claims to have known nothing of Vichy's anti-Semitic legislation and deportations of Jews. Vichy's first anti-Semitic law, excluding Jews from the public service, was passed in October 1940. That aside, the historian Zeev Sternhell asks how Mr. Mitterrand could have failed to grasp that the purpose of the Vichy government was ''to efface the republican past of France . . . ban political liberty, trade unions, parties, to submit justice and press to the power of the government.''

The president has always insisted that Vichy is not part of France's proper history. It was, he says, the work of a few fanatics, and the French Republic and the French people are not responsible for its crimes. He has never admitted the implications of the fact that Marshal Petain was freely voted full powers by the defeated French Third Republic's parliament -- the left-wing Popular Front parliament, elected in 1936. The vote was 569 for the motion, 80 against, 17 abstentions.

President Mitterrand undoubtedly did no worse during the war years than many others. But his subsequent career as defender of republican values and human rights against the forces of reaction fits uneasily with what now has been confirmed. The picture of opportunism and political cynicism that emerges goes much beyond the reputation Mr. Mitterrand has always enjoyed as ''the Florentine,'' the consummate calculator.

He always considered De Gaulle his challenge. He says that he clashed with De Gaulle at their first meeting, in Algiers in 1943. He opposed De Gaulle in the postwar political struggle and made a successful career in the changing coalitions of the Fourth Republic. He was a minister in governments waging the Indochina and Algerian wars and ran against De Gaulle in the presidential election of 1965. He condemned De Gaulle's Fifth Republic as ''a permanent coup d'etat.'' His election to the presidency of that republic in 1981, and re-election in 1988, seemed a victory over his old enemy.

But in the end it has proved a defeat. History will certainly acknowledge the great accomplishment of Mr. Mitterrand, which has been to modernize the French left and turn it into a mainstream force in French political life. However, he has left the Socialist party divided and discredited by a series of financial scandals reaching into the presidential palace itself.

History will deal more harshly with the man who made use of the old parties and forces of the left to advance himself and then cast them aside. He made equally cynical use of the right, lending indirect support to the extremist National Front in order to weaken the mainstream right.

Charles De Gaulle escaped partisan definition, saying that he served a ''certain idea of France'' -- that ''it must aim high and hold itself straight, on pain of mortal danger.'' His acknowledged opportunism was in that cause. He was a man of principle, who drew others to principled action. The liberal journalist Jean Daniel has said that, by his wartime leadership, ''De Gaulle allowed me to remain myself.'' Mr. Mitterrand's loyal followers today feel themselves diminished by their political commitment. That contrast tells it all.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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