Pierre Mendes-France, a former Prime Minister of France and a man who made a deep imprint on France’s postwar era before Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s rise to power, died today in his home in Paris at the age of 75.
Born into an old French Jewish family of Portuguese origin, Mendes-France always took an avid interest in Jewish affairs. Two months before his death, in the middle of Israel’s siege of Beirut, he, together with the late Dr. Nahum Goldmann and Philip Klutznick, signed an appeal calling for Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization to mutually recognize each other.
Mendes-France, who was in power for only seven months — June 1954 to January 1955 — is remembered in France as the man who ended this country’s war in Indochina and granted Tunisia its independence. France’s decolonization process which he began, was completed later by President de Gaulle.
Mendes-France was considered this nation’s last "wise old man." Last May he was hailed by President Francois Mitterrand as the man who inspired and paved the way for the Socialist electoral victory.
ACTIVE IN POLITICS AT AN EARLY AGE
He entered politics in his twenties and became France’s youngest pre-war member of Parliament at the age of 29. He volunteered as a combat pilot in the French Air Force at the outbreak of World War II but was nonetheless arrested and charged with "desertion" by the Vichy government of Marshal Henri Petain for having refused to obey orders to surrender to the German army by fleeing to North Africa. He escaped from jail and joined de Gaulle’s Free French fighting forces in London, flying dozens of missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.
After the war, Mendes-France became Finance Minister in de Gaulle’s government but resigned when he felt that the Administration chose a policy of expediency by refusing to implement his austerity program. De Gaulle later wrote in his memoirs: "I respected this man for having been true and loyal to his principles." Later he admitted that Mendes-France’s policy would have been an economic salvation for France.
ENDS INDOCHINA WAR; SIGNS ACCORD WITH TUNIS
A chain-smoking teetotaller, Mendes-France won international prominence when he told the French Parliament in June 1954, after France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu, "Give me 30 days and I will end the war in Indochina."
He was authorized to do so and, 31 days later, returned from the Geneva Conference after having signed a peace treaty with Indochina. Ten days later he secretly flew to Tunis and negotiated a peace treaty with rebel leader Habib Bourguiba, who remained his life-long friend and still serves as Tunisia’s President.
Mendes-France never had a large constituency. After his fall in early 1955, he never returned to power. Both friends and enemies said he was far too outspoken and frank to win a large following.
In Jewish affairs, he also often drew fire from Israeli leaders and leaders of the Jewish establishment. He always preached Arab-Israeli understanding and was a warm supporter of the Camp David agreements.
He also advocated mutual Israeli-PLO recognition and the creation of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. But he refused to be drawn into inter-party Zionist squabbles or to play an active role in Jewish affairs.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.