This is the title of well-known filmmaker-author Patrick Rotman’s most interesting 55 minute documentary—en V.O., ‘Mitterrand l’Américain’—on François Mitterrand’s friendship with the United States, which aired on France 5 this past Sunday. Mitterrand, the first Socialist president of the French Fifth Republic—and who brought Communists into the government immediately after his election in May 1981, at the height of the Cold War—was Washington’s best ally during his fourteen years in power, so one learns. Rotman indeed portrays Mitterrand as an outright pro-American. This is not exactly the impression one has gathered from other sources, e.g. Ronald Tiersky’s biography but also in some of Mitterrand’s own pre-1981 writings. As Rotman’s principal informants were Mitterrand’s closest foreign and defense policy advisers in the Élysée—Jacques Attali, Hubert Védrine, and Admiral Jacques Lanxade, who are interviewed throughout—his depiction of the relationship is compelling.
Much of the story has been told over the years, e.g. the Americans’ alarm at the appointing of the four Communist ministers to Socialist prime minister Pierre Mauroy’s first government, President Reagan dispatching Vice-President Bush to Paris to find out what the French were up to, and Bush returning to Washington satisfied with Mitterrand’s assurances. This we know. What was said in private by the principal actors is most interesting, though. Védrine recounts that Mitterrand told Bush that there were no greater adversaries on the French political scene than the Socialists and the Communists, that the two rival left-wing parties were separated by, among many other things, fundamentally different conceptions of the “philosophie de l’homme” and of “la place de l’homme dans la société et l’État.” In Attali’s account, Mitterrand explained to Bush that the only way to reduce the weight of the Communist party in French society—the PCF representing 20-25% of the electorate from 1945 to the 1981 election—was to ally with it—with the unavowed goal of stripping it of its voters.
Attali, in recounting Bush’s June 1981 visit to the Élysée, said that the US vice-president was “intellectually a European” and with Mitterrand and his advisers having the sentiment that, in the company of Bush and his entourage, they were with “Europeans.” Well! Like father, not like son. A veritable friendship between Mitterrand and Bush was forged at this moment. Védrine described Bush as an “elegant and distinguished” man, one of the rare American presidents who possessed a “culture internationale” before acceding to executive office, that Bush exhibited “great consideration” for Mitterrand, and with the two men “appreciat[ing] one another greatly.”
As for Ronald Reagan, he and Mitterrand would become, in Rotman’s words, thick as thieves (“ils vont s’entendre comme larrons en foire“) and despite all that separated them politically. Between the French Parti Socialiste and US Republican Party, there wasn’t a whole lot in common. Reagan was wary of Mitterrand when the latter was elected—less than four months after Reagan’s inauguration—but changed his attitude, and particularly after they met at the Ottawa G7 summit in July ’81. The two developed a “warm relationship,” as Védrine tells it, adding that the common view of Reagan as an “idiot” was “totally false,” that he was “un homme simple, intelligent, perspicace,” and also “sympa et accueillant.” Attali, for his part, said that Mitterrand was fascinated by Reagan and they got along “marvelously well,” that Reagan was “warm and charming” and always telling “funny stories” during their down time together. When with Ron, François and his advisers “laughed a lot.” How about that. The Mitterrand-Reagan/Bush relationships were, along with perhaps that of Georges Pompidou and Richard Nixon, the closest of a French and American president(s) in our time.
The relationship was, of course, ultimately based less on personality than national interest and geopolitics. There were points of divergence here—and with tension in the Franco-American relationship ensuing—over the Euro-Siberian gas pipeline, French arms sales to Nicaragua, France’s refusal to include its nuclear force de frappe in any East-West arms control negotiations, and the 1986 US bombing of Libya (this not mentioned in the documentary), to name a few, but these were secondary, fleeting disputes and did not undermine the convergence over the really big issue—the Soviet Union—on which Mitterrand and Reagan were in complete agreement. That Mitterrand would be a faithful ally of the US vis-à-vis the Soviet Union was understood by Reagan at the Ottawa summit, when Mitterrand informed him of the Farewell Dossier, which Reagan’s National Security Advisor of the time, Richard Allen—interviewed in the documentary—called a “remarkable gift from France.” As Védrine put it, the Farewell Dossier was, for Reagan, proof of France’s “fiabilité, efficacité, et utilité” as an ally.
The proof in the pudding was, however, the Euromissile crisis. As it happens, last week I took my American students on a field trip to the Socialist Party HQ on the Rue de Solférino, where we were kindly received by a member of the PS National Secretariat, who gave us an informal talk about the party, past and present. During the discussion of the Mitterrand years I mentioned France’s alignment with the US on the Euromissiles and relative insignificance of the early 1980s “peace” movement here—unlike in Great Britain and West Germany at the time—to which he quoted Mitterrand’s famous words—seen in the documentary—that “pacifism is in the West whereas the SS-20s are in the East.”
Mitterrand’s hard line on the Soviets should not have been surprising in view of his own political past as an anti-communist, and who entered into the short-lived Common Program with the PCF for purely opportunistic reasons—as, in the 1970s, it was the only way for Mitterrand and the left to have a chance at winning national elections—but also, as mentioned above, for strategic ones, to crush the communists by embracing them. In this regard, the documentary reveals declassified cables from the US embassy in Paris detailing the secret contacts Mitterrand established with the US in the 1960s and ’70s, to assure the Americans of his indefatigable support for the Atlantic alliance. Mitterrand, who was an habitué of the Avenue Gabriel, told his American interlocutors that, once in power, he would junk Gaullism and lead a pro-American foreign policy, and that such had been his position since the Fourth Republic. And when Mitterrand entered into the circumstantial alliance with the PCF in the 1970s, he felt more than ever that he needed the United States.
Moving ahead to the Bush 41 administration, the documentary looks at the Mitterrand-Bush interactions in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, in which the convergence of views is highlighted more than the well-known disagreements, notably over the looming reunification of Germany (as Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher were rather less enthusiastic over the prospect than was Bush). The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was, of course, the overriding geopolitical issue in the latter half of 1990 and with Mitterrand deciding from the very outset that force would have to be used against Saddam Hussein if he did not unconditionally withdraw his troops. For Védrine, the French position was crystal clear, which is that it was quite simply impossible for the international community to allow a state to invade a neighboring state—and that was a member of the United Nations—and annex it outright. The Iraqi action could not be allowed to stand, as allowing it to would open all sorts of Pandora’s Boxes. As a consequence, Saddam would have to execute a complete withdrawal from Kuwait or be compelled to do so by the force of arms, period (my own personal position at the time was identical, BTW).
Védrine, emphasizing Mitterrand’s “profound attachment to the international order,” says that there was no pressure on this whatever from the Americans. For Mitterrand, however, military action against Iraq necessitated a UN Security Council resolution—which was forthcoming—and a broad international coalition, which was also forthcoming. As Admiral Lanxade, who was Mitterrand’s military chief-of-staff at the Élysée at the time and liaison with National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft in the White House, tells it, Mitterrand’s political entourage did not favor a close alignment with the United States over Iraq and that there was “reticence” to France participating in the impending military action. Lanxade does not name names, though one presumes that the reticent ones included Jean-Pierre Chevènement (obviously), Roland Dumas, Pierre Joxe, Paul Quilès, and perhaps Jack Lang. According to Lanxade, Mitterrand, faced with the qualms, informed the Council of Ministers in one meeting that “we may disagree with the Americans at times but we cannot be anti-American.” Boom! Fin de discussion.
Lanxade recounts the telephone conversation between Mitterrand and Bush on the eve of the international coalition’s military action against Iraq, on January 15th 1991. He calls the conversation “extraordinary” in tone and solemnity, recalling that of FDR and Winston Churchill on the eve of the D-Day landings. No less. Lanxade concludes that the quality of the Franco-American relationship in the early 1990s was “exceptional.”
The documentary ends with Bush’s departure from the White House and does not treat the two-plus years of Bill Clinton’s presidency that overlapped with Mitterrand’s. There probably isn’t much of note to recount, as it was the fin de règne for Mitterrand, who was in a cohabitation with the right and dying of prostate cancer. That he was disappointed that Bush was not reelected goes without saying. But it was not only on account of their personal relationship, as when it came to American presidents, the French, until the 1990s, systematically preferred Republicans to Democrats. And in 1992, no one in France knew Clinton—and whom the French political class, media, and public opinion did not take to until his persecution during the Monica Lewinsky affair in 1998, when he became hugely popular here. On this, the French were totally right.
As it so happens, François Mitterrand was born 100 years ago today. Joyeux anniversaire, tonton!