Issue 179 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
ON THE BACK
It seems strange now, but in 1981 when François Mitterrand was elected president of France, thousands danced in the streets.
The reason was quite obvious--after decades of right wing governments, France finally had a 'socialist' president. Even many who thought of themselves as revolutionaries joined in the dancing, shared the hopes, got caught up in the illusions.
Illusions they certainly proved to be. For after an all too brief honeymoon period Mitterrand's government launched an austerity programme which involved attacks on the working class and the poor every bit as fierce as anything Thatcher heaped upon us.
The worst legacy of all this proved to be the way in which the disillusion and despair opened the door to the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front.
For years Mitterrand kept a blanket of confusion covering up his war years' activity. He described his escape from a prisoner of war camp and his work in the resistance, but left gaping holes.
Now the holes have been filled in. Mitterrand was in fact a civil servant in the collaborationist Vichy regime. He was decorated by Marshal Petain, leader of that regime. He became a personal friend of Vichy police chief Rene Bousquet, a man who had ordered the deportation and murder of Jews.
Well, so what, you might think. It was all a long time ago, he was young and foolish, and he is now a man so ill that as I write these words I have no idea whether he will still be alive when you read them.
Indeed Mitterrand himself, when finally owning up to his past, explained, 'One is a product of one's background. I began to build up a personal experience during captivity in Germany. Let's say I was a little slow in my evolution.'
Fair enough, the man got it wrong and changed his mind, so why not leave him in peace?
Well, there are a number of things to be said. Firstly, whatever sorrow, regret or recantation Mitterrand had for his past, he certainly didn't let it get in the way of his political ambition.
Far from public confessions and expressions of sorrow, Mitterrand buried his past away, and ensured it stayed buried as he rose to power.
Although in the pay of Vichy during the worst periods of Jewish persecution, he consistently claims a knowledge blind spot: 'I was like everyone else at the time. No one really knew about the concentration camps. I only found out the extent of the horror and atrocity in 1944.'
Whilst it may be true that he didn't know of the full extent of the horrors being perpetrated, he surely must have known that something pretty awful was taking place.
Yet even when he found out it did not mean a complete break from the fascist puppets and gangsters that he had spent his war years in the company of.
So that, for instance, every year on the anniversary of the loathsome Petain's death he would send a wreath to the grave.
Even worse, he retained a friendship with the butcher Bousquet which lasted until at least as late as 1981. Of Bousquet he said, 'He was a man of exceptional breadth. I found him rather sympathetic, frank, almost brutal. I used to meet him with pleasure. He had nothing to do with what is said about him.'
In fact Bousquet was awaiting trial for war crimes at the time of his death. He was murdered, presumably by someone with rather less admiration for his 'frank brutality' than Mitterrand.
Indeed one of the most serious allegations against Mitterrand is that he sought to prevent and delay any trial of Bousquet.
So whilst Mitterrand was clearly no longer a fascist in later life, nevertheless it remains a fact that he continued to show respect, admiration and friendship to some of the most despicable characters in modern French history.
What a sad epitaph that will make for the 'socialist' president who was meant to change the life of so many ordinary people for the better.
What a sad postscript to his life that as it ended, Le Pen and his cut-throats continue to enjoy political respectability and success.
It shocked the French press that when Le Pen came to Britain demonstrators labelled him a Nazi and a fascist. It equally shocks many anti-fascists in Britain that Le Pen is treated as a legitimate and respectable politician by the political establishment in France.
Yet how hard it would be for the man who lays flowers on the grave of Petain and wined and dined with Bousquet to cast Le Pen beyond the pale.
That task will now fall to others. It will fall to those not caught up by political ambition or parliamentary procedures. Those who are prepared to do battle in the streets and fight for a real alternative to the system Mitterrand sought to manage--the system whose crisis has given birth to Le Pen.
Facing death, Mitterrand recently reflected, 'Eternity is long. I would like people to say that what you did was more positive than negative. You have tried to help other people and you have loved them.'
Sadly, because of some of the people Mitterrand 'helped' and 'loved', history will judge him rather more harshly than that.