PARIS (Sep. 11)
A newly published book detailing the activities of French President Francois Mitterrand before, during and after World War II has sent major shockwaves through the president’s Socialist Party and the general public here.
The book, already touted as the major event of the literary season, describes Mitterrand as a right-wing student activist in prewar Paris, as a faithful officer of the collaborationist Vichy regime in 1942 and as a close friend of Rene Bousquet, a former Vichy official charged with crimes against humanity for ordering roundups of Jews for deportation.
On the cover, a shocking photo shows a young Mitterrand being received in 1942 by Marshal Philippe Petain, the Vichy head of state.
Most of the revelations of the book, “A French Youth: Francois Mitterrand 1934-1947,” are not new. Much of the information has been exposed by right-wing publications in France over the past 30 years. But Mitterrand’s friends always dismissed the revelations as pure disinformation.
What appears different this time around is that Mitterrand — for reasons known only to him — consented to and assisted in the research for the book, written by Pierre Pean, a French investigative journalist.
ADMIRATION FOR PETAIN
At 77 and reportedly suffering from prostate cancer, Mitterrand is currently serving his last term as French president.
The book details the president’s activities from 1934, when the young Mitterrand arrived in Paris from the provinces to study law, until 1947, when at 31, he became a Cabinet minister in the postwar French government.
Throughout the book, many myths and legends surrounding Mitterrand are shattered, including the belief that he was engaged in left-wing politics from an early age.
Instead, Pean shows that in 1934, Mitterrand joined an extreme right-wing Catholic — but not anti-Semitic — organization run by a Col. de La Rocque, the head of Les Croix de Feu (the Crosses of Fire).
Although Mitterrand knew many members of the French extremist terrorist group La Cagoule (“The Hood”), he never was a member of the organization, according to Pean.
During the war, Mitterrand, a sergeant in the French army, was captured and held as a prisoner of war by German troops. His fellow prisoners remember that like most of them, he favored the “Revolution Nationale,” the policy of Marshal Henri Philippe Petain.
After he escaped from captivity in 1941, he immediately went to Vichy, not to play a double game, as his supporters had asserted, but out of his admiration for Petain and his desire to participate in what was to be a “French revival.”
He began his service under the Vichy writing intelligence reports on the enemies of Petain’s regime, namely, the communists and Gaullists.
Although insisting he was never an anti-Semite, Mitterrand apparently had no concerns about the Vichy laws against Jews and foreigners. And in 1942, as a high-ranking member of the administration in charge of the French former war prisoners, he was received by Petain, the photographic recording of which is revealed for the first time on Pean’s book cover.
Mitterrand’s ambition drove him to seek the most coveted decoration of the Vichy regime, the Francisque. This implied an oath of total fidelity to Petain. He was awarded the decoration in mid-1943.
But by then Mitterrand, like many highranking members of the Vichy administration, began to question the outcome of the war and initiated contacts with the underground Resistance.
Toward the end of 1943, Mitterrand made a secret visit to London, returned to France and became a prominent leader of the Resistance.
What remains a mystery to many was Mitterrand’s continued relations with hard-line right-wingers, like the man who funded the “Cagoule” terror ring and who, after the war, financially supported Mitterrand.
Another mystery was his friendship with Bousquet, the man responsible for the infamous Vel d’Hiv roundup of Jews in 1942. Far from hiding it, Mitterrand told Pean that Bousquet was “a man of exceptional caliber. I found him to be rather likable, straightforward, almost brutal. I was seeing him with pleasure.”
Bousquet was murdered in his home last year.
The revelations in Pean’s book shocked many in Mitterrand’s Socialist Party.
But Nazi-hunter and lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, president of The Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France, said the book’s revelations were not news to him.
“I have been saying that Bousquet was a close friend of Mitterrand’s for years,” Klarsfeld said. “We have now to be very careful, because to some extent, Pean’s book is also trying to say that the Vichy regime wasn’t manned by all-evil people.”