Mitterrand's Final Service

September 28, 1994

Francois Mitterrand, eight months from honored retirement as president of France, the nation's foremost Man of the Left, Europe's leading surviving Socialist, ill from prostate cancer at 77, perhaps unable to complete his term, has done his nation one final service.

He has collaborated on the public revelation of his own squalid past. In so doing, he may -- may -- have helped France to confront its own collaboration with Nazi Germany in the 1940s.

The facts brought out with Mr. Mitterrand's help by Pierre Pean in his book, "A French Youth: Francois Mitterrand 1934-47," are clear enough. As a young man, Mr. Mitterrand was active on the far right. Then he was a soldier, prisoner of war in Germany, an escapee and a functionary of the government of Marshal Henri Philippe Petain.

During this period, he became a double agent for the French Resistance and, finally, an important asset to Gen. Charles de Gaulle in the Liberation from 1944 on. Later, he single-handedly restored the moribund Socialist Party, and was elected president of the Republic in 1981.

The revelations are Mr. Mitterrand's admiration for Marshal Petain, his earning a Vichy medal and, above all, his friendship with Rene Bousquet, the infamous police chief who rounded up French Jews for German death camps. This friendship, within a close circle of Nazi collaborators, continued long after Mr. Bousquet's exposure and Mr. Mitterrand's righteous posturing on the Left.

It may be that Mr. Mitterrand assisted these revelations only to leave his own spin, knowing they would emerge after his impending death. But they allow French people of all persuasions to examine the national past.

General de Gaulle, savior of the French soul, and Mr. Mitterrand had a joint interest a half-century ago in not shedding light on dark corners. They both needed the myth that France had resisted the German occupation, had been at heart with de Gaulle in valiant exile, and with the Allies had triumphed over evil. This was in part true.

The opposite was in larger part true. After defeat and occupation by Adolf Hitler's Germany, the greater part of France settled down to collaboration. The arts and the cafes and even the couturiers did business as usual -- for their new clients. Many French citizens easily adopted the anti-Semitism at the heart of Nazi doctrine.

A few French scourges of the national conscience have striven to bring all this to light for decades. In what may be his final of many services to his nation, Francois Mitterrand -- wittingly or not -- has helped to bring this needed national self-examination about.

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