Translated by Greg Johnson
In the center of all the questions raised by the sinuous and contradictory path of François Mitterrand is the famous photograph of the interview granted to a young unknown, the future socialist president of the Republic, by Marshall Philippe Pétain in Vichy, on October 15th, 1942.
This document was known to some initiates, but it was verified by the interested party only in 1994, when he saw that his life was ending. Thirty years earlier, the day before the presidential election of 1965, the then Minister of the Interior, Roger Frey, had received a copy of it. He demanded an investigation which went back to a former local head of the prisoners’ association, to which François Mitterrand belonged. Present at the time of the famous interview, he had several negatives. In agreement with General de Gaulle, Roger Frey decided not to make them public.
Another member of the same movement of prisoners, Jean-Albert Roussel, also had a print. It is he who gave the copy to Pierre Péan for the cover of his book Une jeunesse française (A French youth), published by Fayard in September 1994 with the endorsement of the president.
Why did Mitterrand suddenly decide to make public his enthusiastic Pétainism in 1942–1943, which he had denied and dissimulated up to that point? It is not a trivial question.
Under the Fourth Republic, in December 1954, from the platform of the National Assembly, Raymond Dronne, former captain of the 2nd tank division, now a Gaullist deputy, had challenged François Mitterrand, then Minister of the Interior: “I do not reproach you for having successively worn the fleur de lys and the francisque d’honneur [honors created by the Third Republic and Marshall Pétain’s French State respectively – Trans.] . . .” “All that is false,” retorted Mitterrand. But Dronne replied without obtaining a response: “All that is true, and you know very well . . .”
The same subject was tackled again in the National Assembly, on February 1st, 1984, in the middle of a debate on freedom of the press. We were now under the Fifth Republic and François Mitterrand was the president. Three deputies of the opposition put a question. Since the past of Mr. Hersant (owner of Figaro) during the war had been discussed, why not speak about that of Mr. Mitterrand? The question was judged sacrilege. The socialist majority was indignant, and its president, Pierre Joxe, believed that the president of the Republic had been insulted. The three deputies were sanctioned, while Mr. Joxe declared loud and clear Mr. Mitterrand’s role in the Résistance.
This role is not contestable and is not disputed. But, according to the concrete legend imposed after 1945, a résistant past is incompatible with a Pétainist past. And then at the end of his life, Mr. Mitterrand suddenly decided to break with the official lie that he had endorsed. Why?
To be precise, before slowly becoming a résistant, Mr. Mitterrand had first been an enthusiastic Pétainist, like millions of French. First in his prison camp, then after his escape, in 1942, in Vichy where he was employed by the Légion des combattants, a large, inert society of war veterans. As Mitterrand found this Pétainism too soft, he sought out some “pure and hard” (and very anti-German) Pétainists like Gabriel Jeantet, an old member of the Cagoule [the right-wing movement of the late 1930s dedicated to overthrowing the Third Republic – Trans.], chargé in the cabinet of the Marshal, one of his future patrons in the Ordre de la francisque.
On April 22nd, 1942, Mitterrand wrote to one his correspondents: “How will we manage to get France on her feet? For me, I believe only in this: the union of men linked by a common faith. It is the error of the Legion to have taken in masses whose only bond was chance: the fact of having fought does not create solidarity. Something along the lines of the SOL, carefully selected and bound together by an oath based on the same core convictions. We need to organize a militia in France that would allow us to await the end of the German-Russian war without fear of its consequences . . .” This is a good summary of the muscular Pétainism of his time. Quite naturally, in the course of events — in particular after the American landing in North Africa of November 8th, 1942 — Mitterand’s Pétainism evolved into resistance.
The famous photograph published by Péan with the agreement of the president caused a political and media storm. On September 12th, 1994, the president, sapped by his cancer, had to explain himself on television under the somber gaze of Jean-Pierre Elkabbach. But against all expectation, the solitude of the accused, as well as his obvious physical distress, made the interrogation seem unjust, causing a feeling of sympathy: “Why are they picking on him?” It was an important factor that reconciled the French to their president. It was not an endorsement of a politician’s career. It was Mitterrand the man who had suddenly became interesting. He had acquired an unexpected depth, a tragic history that stirred an echo in the secret of the French mystery.
1. The SOL (Service d’ordre légionnaire) was constituted in 1941 by Joseph Darnand, a former member of the Cagoule and hero of the two World Wars. This formation, by no means collaborationist, was made official on January 12th, 1942. In the new context of the civil war which is then spread, the SOL was transformed into the French Militia on January 31st, 1943. See the Nouvelle Revue d’Histoire, no. 47, p. 30, and my Histoire de la Collaboration (History of the collaboration) (Pygmalion, 2002).