Was François Mitterrand, who served as President of France from 1981 to 1995, anti-Semitic? October 26 marks Mitterrand’s centenary but already earlier this year on a Gallic TV chat show, Prime Minister Manuel Valls reopened the debate by citing Mitterrand as an example of anti-Semitism in France. Authoritative biographies by historian Michel Winock and journalist Philip Short depict an extraordinarily duplicitous politician, a virtuoso liar whose statements varied according to his audience. Therefore, people who knew Mitterrand in different contexts have left contradictory reminiscences of his attitudes about Jews. His brother-in-law, the actor Roger Hanin (1925-2015), born Roger Lévy to an Algerian Jewish family, was one of Mitterrand’s fans. In 1999, appearing on the variety program hosted by the French Jewish TV performer Michel Drucker, Hanin exclaimed that his brother-in-law’s lifelong close friendship with Georges Dayan (1915-1979), a French politician of Algerian Jewish origin, made any claim of anti-Semitism nonsensical. Hanin added that apart from Jews who were Mitterrand’s comrades in the French Resistance, as president he named to his cabinet five ministers who were Jewish or had Jewish roots: Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, Minister of Transport Charles Fiterman, Minister of Industry Pierre Dreyfus, Minister of Justice Robert Badinter, and Minister of Culture Jack Lang.
Raised Catholic, Mitterrand developed a belief in what he called a “religion of friendship,” based on mutual aid between like-minded people. He had high expectations of Jewish people’s abilities. In her memoirs, his personal secretary Paulette Decraene recounted that one day, Mitterrand exclaimed about a government minister: “I never thought a Jew could be such a moron.” (Je ne pensais pas qu’un juif pouvait être aussi con.) When asked later which minister he was referring to, Decraene exclaimed that she had no idea, but was mainly surprised at the president’s use of a vulgar term, con.
The French Jewish economist and writer Jacques Attali, born in Algeria, served as Mitterrand’s special adviser on economics, culture, and politics for a decade. In “Verbatim,” a three-volume account of their exchanges, Attali expressed his admiration for Mitterrand’s support of Israel, along with disappointments about how the president dealt with other Jewish-related matters. In “L’Express” in 1999, Attali recalled Mitterrand’s “fascination for Judaism and Israel…Obviously François Mitterrand wasn’t anti-Semitic. Such an accusation would be comical, were it not intolerable… He was fascinated by the adventure of the Jewish people and Israel. The only Jews he didn’t like were those who did not admit to being Jewish.” Plus the occasional con, of course.
A defender of Israel’s right to exist, Mitterrand disappointed Attali in his attitude to the Holocaust. In “Verbatim I (1993),” Attali wrote that “fascinated by the destiny of the Jewish people, furiously anti-Hitler, [Mitterrand] looked on genocide coldly; he saw [the Holocaust] as an exploit of war, not a horror of human nature.” Mitterrand repeatedly lied to him about his early ties to the right wing, fully revealed to readers in 1994 by the biographer Pierre Péan A literary snob of rare pretentiousness, Mitterrand was a vocal post-war admirer of a number of notoriously anti-Semitic, Nazi collaborating French writers, including Robert Brasillach, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Paul Morand, and Jacques Chardonne. More disturbing was Mitterrand’s long personal friendship with the French civil servant René Bousquet, who served as secretary general to the Vichy regime police in 1942 and 1943. During this time, when the Nazi occupiers sought to deport only Jewish adults to concentration camps, Bousquet personally insisted that Jewish children under age 18 also be deported, to make administrative matters easier for the French civil service. This singular iniquity, made public knowledge in 1978, did not prevent Mitterrand from socializing with Bousquet until 1986, when the former Nazi collaborator finally began to seem like a political liability.
In his mind, Mitterrand’s religion of friendship justified this closeness, since Bousquet had once warned him of an upcoming Gestapo raid, thereby saving his life. To other friends, Mitterrand would complain about how unjust it was that Bousquet’s civil service career had been ruined by the war. On the subject of Bousquet, Mitterrand could be snappish and irate, as when he told the French writer Jean d’Ormesson about those who blamed him for continuing to see Bousquet: “Notice the powerful and harmful influence of the Jewish lobby in France.” In a memoir labelled a novel, d’Ormesson quoted Mitterrand’s observation, and Manuel Valls referred to this quote when calling Mitterrand an anti-Semite.
Other informed observers were more nuanced. The Algerian-born French-Jewish journalist Jean Daniel (born Jean Daniel Bensaïd) explained that Mitterrand had repeatedly mentioned to him the existence of a pro-Israel lobby, which he never confused with the “entire Jewish community.” Mitterrand could be comparably stubborn and irritable on the subject of France’s national responsibility for the Holocaust. Only in 1995, after Jacques Chirac succeeded him as president, did a French head of state officially apologize for wrongs done by the French government during the Occupation. Mitterrand always vehemently refused to do so, on the grounds that deportations, murders, and other crimes occurred when the Vichy regime was in power, not the French Republic. This semantic nicety ignored the fact that many of the same civil servants, including Bousquet, served in the French civil service before and during the war, creating a de facto continuity. Mitterrand held fast to his point of view, complaining in a 1994 documentary that those demanding an apology were guilty of making an “inordinate request” and were “people who have no deep feeling of what it means to be French, the honor of being French, and the honor of French history.” Rather more extreme than simply mentioning a Jewish lobby, this point of view cast doubts on the Frenchness of French Jews or others who objected to Mitterrand’s overlooking the past in the name of reconciliation. Mitterrand claimed that by not prosecuting Bousquet and not apologizing for what happened during the Occupation, France was building a better future with its neighbor Germany and healing internal wounds created during the troubled time.
Pursuing his own definition of history, Mitterrand also persisted in placing flowers on the tomb of Marshal Philippe Pétain, Chief of State of Vichy France, who had been honored for his military leadership in World War I before becoming a Nazi collaborator. To those who objected, Mitterrand replied that he was merely following an “administrative custom.”
Attali was not the only one galled by these views which obliterated history, as if it had not occurred, part of the prolonged public silence over wartime misdeeds in France. As for his own past, before Mitterrand granted interviews to Péan, he regularly lied to friends and associates, overlooking his work for the Vichy government before his decision in mid-1943 to join the Resistance. As president, his eagerness for reconciliation with Germany led Mitterrand to speak inadequately of Nazism, as Attali noted,. In 1995, during a visit to Berlin, Mitterrand stated how he “admired the bravery of all the combatants during the [Second World] War, including German soldiers.” For his part, a long-time political colleague, Charles Fiterman, (born Chilek Fiterman in 1933, of Polish Jewish origin) told “l’Humanité” that the belated revelations about Mitterrand give the “unpleasant feeling of having been wrong about someone. Fifty years on, there isn’t the slightest trace of regret or critical analysis. Instead, we find continued compromising relations [with Bousquet,] shedding new light on such deeds as placing flowers on the tomb of Pétain.” Fiterman, whose father was deported from their French home and murdered in Auschwitz, identified a “continuity in certain choices [by Mitterrand,] the continuity of a man of power who relies on networks of friends and services.”
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.