An artist, with himself the subject of his art

January 11, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- In physical and political presence, an American is reminded most of Franklin Roosevelt when considering France's former President Francois Mitterrand, who died Monday.

The face, the profile, the conscious style that imposed itself even from Roosevelt's wheelchair, the consummate subtlety in political practice, the total pragmatism and lack of ideology -- the lack of principle, their enemies said! -- and finally, and above all, their ambition and perseverance, were parallel qualities.

They were both betrayers of their class, as their enemies also said. Roosevelt was the New York patrician who created an alliance of labor and liberals with Southern conservatives that was able to govern the United States, and dominate its imagination, from 1932 to 1952. The Democratic Party has never recovered from his loss, despite the passage of John Kennedy's comet.

Francois Mitterrand was a provincial conservative and Roman Catholic whose prewar political initiation was in rightist student circles, mobilizing in Paris streets to mock democracy and attack the Popular Front.

Franklin Roosevelt had the good fortune to be an American of TC America's golden age. The choices he had to make were within a large and stable democratic consensus, in an international context where the nation's course was imposed upon it by external forces.

Francois Mitterrand was less fortunate. He flirted with fascism when that seemed first a choice, then a necessity, for France. His service to the wartime Petainist government in Vichy evolved into a commitment to the resistance, but this afterward seemed less a decision of principle than an act of realism -- in both the large and small senses of that term.

He served colonial repression as a government minister in the Fourth Republic, and was a lifelong enemy and rival of France's colonial liberator, Charles DeGaulle. He adopted socialism in the 1960s in order to occupy the political space left open by the success of Gaullism.

He won the presidency in 1981 as advocate of a lyrical and romantic version of socialism, which promised to change life itself for the French, but conspicuously failed to do so. He then became a social democrat, in fact if not name. It was another act of realism -- the act of a man who understood power and spent his life searching for it, and cultivating it when he had it.

He succeeded because of his patience, political subtleness, and sense of maneuver, but also because of his capacity to invent and reinvent himself. He was one of those remarkable men who fundamentally are artists, but with themselves and their careers the subject of their art.

He constructed his career like a painter, rubbing out the mistakes as he went, shifting the perspective as his vision shifted, always with the final creation in his mind: the completed image that would remain, and prevail, when he was finished.

He apparently was writing memoirs or reflections until the morning he died. He had delivered the manuscript of his last book shortly before, and it is widely thought that he himself deliberately chose his moment to depart.

Narcissistic correction

The writer Regis Debray says: ''Where DeGaulle spoke of France, Mitterrand spoke of himself.'' His final year in power, when his cancer was known, was passed in the narcissistic correction of his own history in the guise of revealing it.

He gave interviews, offered public revelations and private -- but publishable -- confidences, and inspired his friends and even his enemies to make their own reconsiderations of his life and career in terms that satisfied him.

Mitterrand unified the French left for the first time since the Popular Front, took it to power and established it as a legitimate party of power. He also corrupted it by introducing into his coalition of power disreputable financiers and political adventurers. He destroyed the Communist Party, already in decline, by depriving it of the opposition role that was its surviving strength. He also promoted the extreme right in France for the wholly cynical purpose of dividing the opposition vote.

He was faithful to a European policy created by his predecessors, and for practical reasons brought France closer to the United States and NATO. He also miscalculated Indochina, Algeria, great developments in Russia, Germany's unification and the significance of the war in Yugoslavia. Like Roosevelt, he lacked geopolitical realism and insight. He could not see beyond France.

He was a politician, not a statesman. Seductive as his personality was, and imposing as were his intelligence and many of his accomplishments, the politician's epitaph is the necessary one, even though it is not the one he sought.

He told an interviewer in 1985, ''I cannot say that my life is a success because I am president of France. Let us say that in terms of a political career, that is not bad at all. But it is not the end of ends, and it is not an end in itself.''

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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