Articles de La Guinguette - 2005 - février - actualité

Titre Fasciné par la fascination pour François Mitterrand
Année 2005
Mois février
Catégorie actualité
Traducteur Alistair Mills
Dernière mise à jour07 February 2010

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Fascinated by the fascination for Francois Mitterrand

Nine years after his death, Francois Mitterrand is in the headlines of all the newspapers again.

The appearance of a new film about the last part of his life has prompted the media to question the achievements of his fourteen years as President, between 1981 and 1995. For some, his mastery of politics enabled him to modernize the country and to construct Europe. For others he was a destroyer of their dreams of a total break with capitalism whilst he was the high priest of liberal economics.

It is difficult to find a consensus on the achievements, there is no doubt about his capacity to fascinate people. More than 400 books have already been published about his career. From his driver to his advisors, everyone has had their story to tell. Why such a fad? It is a question which was put to the researcher Bernard Pirat:

There have been an enormous number of works on Francois Mitterrand; that has brought about what we call "Mitterrandology". In fact it is more than just Francois Mitterrand himself; that seems important to me to study, it's the fascination for Francois Mitterrand. My hypothesis is that the role of the media is more important than the personality. That means that the media made his personality; it's the manner of writing, of words, which creates the aura of the President.

Of course, you have to have the personality to attract such attention - some unhappily or happily never get there. It's a necessary but insufficient condition and so there are other conditions which interest Mr Pirat.

Political science has a lot of problems with the notion of charisma. Its work is explaining why there is such a difference between some politicians in the sense of their perceived charisma. The hypothesis of political science is to tell that this difference does not come from one personal attribute, but from... how do you say... form the percieved charisma; that is, there are people who have an interest in attributing charisma to the political leader.

Each great man needs some historical luck:

Let's say that we cannot understand what represents Mitterrand for the left if we do not recall the considerable politicization of a whole pile of social matters in the 1970s, which were politicized against the Gaullist legacy and against traditional society and which was waiting! So was there a projection of the leader?

So why was this particular projection of Mitterrand made?

It was very powerful; it was from 1965 when he stood for office against General de Gaulle, so that the left was somewhat not united and uncoordinated about knowing if it really ought to engage in the competition in the presidential election or if it should refuse. So then Francois Mitterrand took part in the battle and he did not emerge as the winner of the competition as it was de Gaulle who won; but he did emerge as the winner for a long time within his own party. That is he had the privilege of being the one who dared to challenge President de Gaulle. And that was an important and large role from within the French left of centre parties.

Once elected President, he took advantage of the aura which goes with the role, yet he still had to know how to use it.

There was an internal debate between the person and the job and there was a mixture which emerged. What is fascinating about Francois Mitterrand is the way that he knew how to fulfil the presidential role and the presidential job and to grow his personality. There was always enough of the person and his role, a way for Francois Mitterrand to play the President, even in private. That gave images of him in private which connected with the public Presidential role. The private image is of the father figure, a man who is surrounded by his friends, a man whose friends accompany him to La Roche de Solutre [1], but they all stayed behind him, he leads, a man who thinks deeply, who walks along apart from everyday politics and petty politics, who is much more... A man who is interested in more profound things. A man who is moving in time with French culture and literature. That's to say a President who likes reading, who never stopped saying that he missed his calling to be a writer, who collected books, who was a bibliophile and who, it is said, was gifted in great book culture, who loved, who was shown as loving the world of culture. So that, that's the theory of the "Writer President", so the President was to surround himself with clever people who were to send back a reflection. So that's... a reflection that he intended to choose. So Francois Mitterrand deliberately chose a reflection coming from people from the world of culture.

Ought we to detect some cynicism in this behaviour? According to Mr Pirat, we ought not to rush to this conclusion.

So, you are touching on a fundamental problem of human existence, which is that of authenticity. Well, I believe that you mustn't be too simplistic choosing between the authentic and the pretence. I believe that you must, how do we say, explain the taste for some things like when we play a game and when we commit ourselves to the game. I believe that there are politicians who from the moment that they enter into public life, they commit themselves to the game; and from the moment that Francois Mitterrand played the role of President, the role... he committed himself to the role and he cultivated some ways which worked because he saw that they worked!

Over time there were some others who came on the scene. By repeating that someone is fascinating we end up believing it; then there was quite an entourage of journalists who wanted to commit their careers to the politicians, and who had climbed the ladder with him, or who had an interest in growing the importance of the man on whom their own importance depended.

There are a thousand ways of describing someone. Really there are always the same characteristics, the same basic structures, the same types of stories which come up again and again. I dare say that each finds his favourite. That means that we had the President seen as on high and from afar by the great names of journalism, the great editors, who exalted Mitterrand, the tribe of Mitterrand followers for his Florentine politics, for his art of politics, for his Machiavellian politics, for his strategy. That's them. Then we see those who talked with Mitterrand from on high, but close, the special advisors. Attali [2], Vedrine [3]. They exalted the monarch like appearance of power; that is a man who takes all the decisions. So simply, the act of describing that, that gives this effect. It's a prism, a way of seeing things. So we see a man who makes all the decisions; thence the "monarch" effect. Next we see the big President seen from below, but close up, with for example the driver of Francois Mitterrand who wrote his memoirs and who in them describes a family man, attentive, close to the people, close to children. And that's also a way to magnify him. It says: he was very big, but he stayed the same, he was always authentic, pure, etc. So it is the way of writing that makes the personality.

If it were just enough to have fulsome eulogies written so that the stories become true, that would be too simple. This is what holds the interest of Mr Pirat for the reflection:

It is like a mayonnaise which works well. Well on Chirac [4] there are biographies using the same techniques; the anecdote, the little recollection, the tale of climbing a hill. The same takes. But the mayonnaise does not work because the political circumstances are different, because of a lesser being as the incumbent of the Presidential office.

Mitterrand used to be happy to say that he was the last of the great Presidents. Pirat does not want to believe in the "the end of history". Just that it is difficult for his successors to capture his legacy and to take advantage of it.

So the problem is: what legacy was there to capture? Is it a political legacy in terms of the political line or of the political vision? It remains an open question. Or even is it a purely symbolic legacy, repeated endlessly; in the end a legacy of appearance, of a personality in the political know? And clearly the man who is well placed to capture this legacy is Laurent Fabius [5]. Why? Well we leave the field of political science and enter the field of political analysis, of the political game, because he does it again, he plays the "shot" (in inverted commas, I don't mean to say that he is not sincere as analyst, I refuse to declare my position on this question), he plays the "shot" of a complete break, of a French-French confrontation, block against block, in dealing with the European question. It is in this way that while affirming this divide, as Francois Mitterrand had affirmed the left-right divide by making an alliance with the communist party. It is by affirming this divide that Laurent Fabius is trying to potentially win the power of the left. The problem for him is the referendum defeated him [6]. The referendum of the Socialist Party.

[1] La Roche de Solutre is a hill near Macon near Lyon where Mitterrand used to lead a walk every year on Pentecost Sunday.

[2] Jacques Attali (b1943) is a well known writer, economist and broadcaster in France.

[3] Jean Vedrine (1914-2010) was a well known politician in France.

[4] Jacques Chirac (b1932) was the President of France at the time of this article.

[5] Laurent Fabius (b1946) was Prime Minister of France during the Presidency of Mitterrand.

[6] Shortly before this article was written Fabius led an unsuccessful campaign within the Socialist Party to adopt a policy of rejecting the European Constitution.

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Updated 07 February 2010

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