François Mitterrand is entering his final months as French president after a long and full run. Some believe him to be a statesman; others call him a lucky careerist. By turn, Mitterrand is described as either a past-master Machiavellian and France's most detested politician or one of contemporary Europe's most durable, original, and successful leaders.

On the evidence, both judgments are valid reflections of the man and his legacy. In French politics, 14 years as a Gaullist "republican monarch" is plenty of time to make enemies, and Mitterrand already had more than his share when elected president in 1981. Internationally, his anti-Soviet stand and role in the Euromissile crisis marked East-West relations in the 1980s; so did his subsequent hesitations on German unification and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. as the wheel advanced from Cold War verities into post-Cold War uncertainties. When set against the dislike of leaders in Western countries such as the United States, Britain, and Italy, criticism of Mitterrand's shortcomings seems part of a Western political cycle still running on recession-made fuel.

Only by taking a historical perspective can Mitterrand be appreciated in his fin de règne. From such a standpoint, the French president -- now 78 years old and struggling against a life-threatening cancer to finish out his term -- presents a balance sheet with several striking successes as well as a few black marks and blind spots.

Without question, Mitterrand has been the most important French political leader since Charles de Gaulle. The fact that, after following a winding road, he ended up a genuine man of the left has importance beyond the issue of what remains of the old "left." It is key to understanding how Mitterrand was able to reinvigorate France as a nation capable of a continuing important international role -- just as de Gaulle, coming from the right, did in his time.

Mitterrand was elected as the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic but became president of all the French -- itself an important legacy coming from the left. Against a history of shaky European left-wing attitudes in East-West relations and defense and security issues, Mitterrand's demonstration that a Socialist French president could be solid on both counts was crucial. His European policies were not mere Machiavellianism. By masterfully serving not only French but international interests, his record verges on statesmanship. Mitterrand's three main achievements -- clarifying the issue of socialism, fostering domestic legitimacy, and negotiating France's central place in the European Union -- are, if not historic, then on the historical scale.


The genuineness of Mitterrand's socialism has understandably been suspect. He came belatedly to the Socialist Party (PS) in 1971, already in his fifties and with three heavy careers -- in the wartime Resistance, the Fourth Republic, and the Fifth Republic -- as baggage. Whatever his electoral rhetoric, he was never an ideological socialist. As the Socialist leader, he stressed that although Marxism had historically been a major influence in French socialism, the PS was not a Marxist party.

Despite his origins, it is hardly open to doubt that Mitterrand as president has been a genuine man of the left. Mitterrand's family milieu, student politics, and initial actions in World War II were right-wing, although never fascist or anti-Semitic. Mitterrand later became a liberal, and more solidly so because it was a genuine conversion. This liberal temperament, including his long personal engagement with rule-of-law and civil and political liberties issues, is much of what makes him a leftist. In Tocquevillean terms, one could say that Mitterrand has loved liberty more than equality, that he is more liberal than socialist.

In 1981, clearly, Mitterrand was elected president as a leftist. Whether or not he was really a socialist, he behaved as one. His "Union of the Left" government tested socialist policies on a larger scale than had any other West European socialist leader since Britain's Clement Attlee during 1945-47. Mitterrand also made the Communist Party part of his government, which, as he planned, paradoxically precipitated its decline by putting it to the test.

The 1981-82 legislative agenda of the "Union of the Left" included "Keynesian socialist" reforms, a wave of nationalizations of banks and industrial companies, a successful decentralization of the centralized Napoleonic state structure, and modest expansion of union rights. The result was monetary and budgetary disaster and a politically humiliating retreat. By actually testing socialist policies, the "Mitterrand experiment" discredited the French left's old ideological outlook.

The resultant new realism made possible a historic left-right accommodation, expanding the heretofore contested legitimacy of the Fifth Republic's political institutions and liberal economy. The willingness of both right and left to abandon France's two-century-old "silent civil war" inspired historians in the mid-1980s to declare that "the French Revolution is finally over." Weakening the communist movement and getting a modernized left to accept France's political institutions and market economy was a crucial work of legitimation and national reconciliation. A conservative could not have done it. Only a leader of the left could have managed it, acting with exceptional political cunning and the huge powers of the Gaullist presidency. De Gaulle, having crafted both the new regime in 1958 and the divisive acceptance of Algerian independence in 1962, convinced the right (or most of it) to accept both the republic's legitimacy and the necessity of decolonization. Mitterrand, in turn, reconciled the French left to the Gaullist institutions and downgraded socialism's ideological threat to France's economy and society.

In the last year of his presidency, Mitterand helped Frenchmen reconcile themselves on another front -- their collective past during the difficult years of World War II. Opening his files and explaining in personal interviews his Vichy and Resistance experiences illustrated that a Vichy past is not in itself proof of collaboration, let alone fascism or responsibility for Vichy's crimes.

Mitterand took serious risks all during the war, as a prisoner who made dangerous escapes, as a Vichy civil servant who transformed himself into an agent of the Resistance, and finally as an underground Resistance leader. Mitterand's path may have been a winding one, but he finally took the right turns, and his late-in-life disclosures turned out to be important gestures that helped France move forward.


In European politics today, France still faces dilemmas that, as in the Cold War, involve choosing the lesser of two evils. Autonomy and independence would naturally be Paris' first preference. But France, like Germany, is bound to the paradoxical 21st century principle of furthering the national interest through interdependence. The French problem is to find the policy combining maximum advantages with minimum disadvantages. Mitterrand's presidency has been crucial in developing a rough consensus in France favoring a European policy that combines federalist leanings with a gaullien emphasis on the European Council's centrality -- that is, on the nation-state as decision-maker.

Mitterrand has advanced France's European stakes past the point of no return. No French politician who seriously hopes to be president can be frankly against Europe. Jacques Chirac, the neo-Gaullist presidential candidate, is the first case in point. Voters of his Rally for the Republic party (RPR) are about one-third in favor of Europe, and the center-right voters of the Union for French Democracy -- whom any neo-Gaullist candidate needs to win -- are nearly all in favor of Europe. So Chirac's unexpected proposal for a referendum on the third phase of monetary union affronts French opinion as well as contradicting the 1992 Maastricht referendum's commitment to a single European currency. German leaders are beginning to worry out loud that France may renege on commitments to further integration, but Chirac's idea is highly unlikely to win out.

The real questions for France are what kind of Europe and how much Europe. If it is not clear what exactly is ruled in, it is not doubtful what is ruled out. Even Chirac agrees that more Europe is necessary so that France and its partners do not disappear against the North American and Asian blocs that are forming.

France's key strategic relationships are with unified Germany and the United States. Germany is France's first partner, and the quality of France's relationship with Germany defines France's successes in the European Union (EU) as a whole. Although less clearly perceived, the same is true for Germany's relationship with France.

For decades, participants at Paris conferences anxiously asked, "What will the French do if Germany ever unifies?" After Mitterrand, the answer is now clear: they will do the best they can. This may well prove sufficient, especially if the Germans cooperate by overextending themselves and if a secondary Franco-British axis -- albeit not one as strategic as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would wish -- takes form.

In radically changed circumstances, Mitterrand has maintained de Gaulle's priority of rapprochement with Germany. But there are important differences. In the 1960s, because he was de Gaulle and because of Germany's special circumstances, de Gaulle was always in the driver's seat with Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard. Mitterrand has dealt with a very different Germany -- much richer, more accepted, emerging into "ordinariness," diplomatically assertive, and suddenly unified. Differences separating French and German policies are no longer automatically solved by German deference, and France's permanent German preference in the EU restricts any pretense of an alternative first partner, any alliance de revers.

The issue for post-Mitterrand France's European policy is whether European integration, as the French want it, moves forward or unravels. There are two specters: a (highly unlikely) reversion to a simple free-trade zone or a (less unlikely) German slide eastward. The practical issues are thus EU enlargement, where German policy is more expansive; "variable geometries" and "hard cores" in monetary union and beyond, where Mitterrand, like German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union, thinks "concentric circles" of commitment are unavoidable; and NATO's relations with the Western European Union, where the French want a freestanding European defense entity as the long-sought "second pillar" of NATO.

From the time he abandoned socialist economics and "chose Europe" by reaffirming the franc's fidelity to the European Monetary System in 1983, Mitterrand has assumed that France must commit itself irrevocably to European integration and Germany. A Franco-German axis anchors French prosperity and self-confidence, and thus France's international presence and influence in the next century.

Mitterrand's legacy in European affairs thus can seem paradoxical, but it is only an appearance. Integration has become necessary to the French national interest and the goal of world rank. It is a grand ambition for France, even if some RPR politicians, who are more neo-Gaullist but less gaullien than Mitterrand, ask for a retreat to confederation -- that is, to an EU council with less qualified majority voting and a softer monetary policy, meaning a softer French currency and more succor to French unemployment.

Mitterrand surely would prefer that a great debate over federalism not occur in France, either in the coming presidential campaign or in the 1996 intergovernmental conference to update the Maastricht treaty (itself another Mitterand achievement). His outlook, which seems federalist when compared to neo-Gaullist ideas, is less so compared to German policy in the Kohl era. Mitterrand thinks this difference about whether the EU should be frankly federalist or not is a matter of deep-seated cultural and political differences between French and German traditions. His insight is that the conflict need not be settled so long as it does not present practical obstacles to "Europe." If and when the matter does need to be settled, differences may have eroded -- as they did before on national sovereignty and majority voting -- to a point of synthesis.


France's relationship with the United States defines French opportunities for a world role. In the United Nations, in NATO, and in ad hoc operations, France knows that America will often set the parameters. Mitterrand has frequently taken contrarian positions, as on the Bosnian embargo. In the long run, however, the theme of his American policy was not to play solo above all else to trumpet France's presence, but to be important enough to be a first-rank partner for other world powers.

Mitterrand's legacy here includes a striking desire for a warm relationship with President George Bush -- partly out of loyalty kindled during Bush's Paris visit in June 1981, when the then vice president helped smooth over the issue of communist government membership with Ronald Reagan, but more importantly because of Mitterrand's decision to consult more closely with the United States about changes in Europe as the Cold War ended. From the Euromissile crisis to his courtship of Bush, Mitterrand laid out a general line that is unlikely to be changed by either Gaullist or left-wing governments. In the Gulf crisis, after a diplomatic controversy that went on until the very last minute, the frank French engagement in Operation Desert Storm put oil and commerce with Iraq into parentheses and again demonstrated France's permanent interests.

Nevertheless, Mitterrand has been a typical French president in his geopolitical unease with American power. Even with the Soviet Union gone, power is power, and geopolitical concerns endure even among friendly states. Americans exasperated by French policy will find it less puzzling if they consider France's constant struggle with greater German dynamism next door, greater American strength internationally, and the lurking "eastern question" of Russia.

France is the key European NATO country in determining how close American-European relations can become. London usually backs American policy, while Bonn always tries to avoid having to choose between Washington and Paris. France, a bridge and sometimes an obstacle between Germany and the United Kingdom, thus tends to determine whether there will be a "European" policy at all, rather than a collection of bilateral policies toward the United States. Here Mitterrand's legacy is the statesmanlike one of having kept matters open. He erased any doubts that a French Socialist could know the value of the United States for European security while retaining the Gaullist emphasis on the dangers for Europeans of American interests.

What France does in Eastern Europe will affect not only various French and European eastern questions, but also France's relationship with Germany -- and thus the future of the EU. Mitterrand's sure strategic touch with Cold War problems was shaken by communism's collapse and the sudden uncertainties of post-Gorbachev Europe. He misjudged both German unification and Soviet collapse.

But how damaging ultimately were Mitterrand's hesitations and miscues during the U.S.S.R.'s demise? France, though an important European country, was not on the front line or in control of decisions about German unification or negotiations about the Soviet Union's European retreat. French policy did fail, however, in accepting that the Yugoslav state was unsalvageable in European Community negotiations over whether to recognize Slovenia and Croatia.

Mitterrand also leaves a legacy from the Euromissile crisis, in which he unexpectedly became "America's best European ally" and NATO's staunchest European pillar. Mitterrand called the Euromissile drama "the most serious since the Cuban missile crisis and the blockade of Berlin," and it defined his first-term foreign policy. "I notice," he said memorably of NATO's responsibility for the crisis, "that the pacifists are in the West, whereas the missiles are in the East."

Mitterrand spent important political capital on the Euromissile deployments. The high point was his 1983 speech in the West German parliament. A German electoral campaign was genuinely shaken up by the socialist French president's message that a renewed conservative government, rather than his Social Democratic Party comrades, would be preferable for Germany and peace. Skeptics said that Mitterrand had the easy beau rôle. But he took serious risks at home among his PS activists and voters and with his reputation in the history books.

Mitterrand was not always so statesmanlike. Nowhere was the conflict between good words and raison d'état more apparent than in his Africa policy. Mitterrand arrived in office calling for an end to France's neocolonial relationships with French-speaking African states and France's cynical tradition of intimate dealings with African dictators, but will leave with the old traditions largely intact. No longer willing or able to finance its role of neocolonialist patron, France is slashing its subsidies of African government budgets -- after decades when those subsidies fueled African wars, the most recent case in point being the Hutu-dominated and French-supported government in Rwanda.


From an international perspective, the legacy of Mitterrand's presidency is, overall, his strength and endurance writ large, and the legitimacy he has been able to work. He made the institutions work for the left and turned the constitutional success of "cohabitation" into a French form of bipartisanship that buttressed the system's legitimacy. His foreign policy embodied the message that France still counts and, therefore, the quality of French leadership remains important. France continues to play its autonomous part -- at times frustrating Americans and others -- in international negotiations on issues from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to Bosnia, Rwanda, and Iraq, and above all in negotiating the European Union. Under Mitterrand's leadership, France, though often a gadfly, nonetheless won its share of negotiations.

Will the Franco-German symbiosis hold together in a common vision of European unity, or are Germany's eastern connections bound to lead it away from its erstwhile partner? How will Britain and countries such as Italy and Spain figure in French diplomacy? Is there a chance, as Thatcher's memoirs strongly urge, for a Franco-British axis to balance Germany's strength? How can France and the European Union deal with America in a way that not only addresses world problems but also safeguards French autonomy? These are the complex issues for post-Mitterrand France. It is Mitterrand's legacy that his successor can face them with a certain amount of confidence.

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  • Ronald Tiersky, Professor of Political Science at Amherst College, is the author of France in the New Europe: Changing Yet Steadfast (Wadsworth, 1994). This essay is part of a book in progress.
  • More By Ronald Tiersky