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Book Review : Hit-and-Run Biography of Mitterrand

April 15, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The Black and the Red: Francois Mitterrand, the Story of an Ambition by Catherine Nay, translated by Alan Sheridan (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $19.95)

Like the detested schoolboy who claims that Monday is his favorite day because it provides five whole days to look forward to the weekend, Francois Mitterrand has always found bright prospects on the dark side.

This long-surviving figure has made the art of the come-back into high art. Forty years ago, he won his first Cabinet post, and ever since, he has managed to alternate triumph with calamity in a uniquely personal fashion.

His defeats were not simple political reverses; they were more like routs, the kind that normally would not check a career but destroy it. His recoveries were astonishing.

In the most recent ups and downs, he won a brilliant victory in 1981, becoming the first man of the Left to take power in the presidential system installed by De Gaulle a quarter century earlier and held by conservatives ever since. The triumph was cut short last year with an electoral surge by the Right that destroyed Mitterrand's parliamentary majority and forced him to accept Jacques Chirac, a detested rival, as prime minister.

Back in Favor

Yet only a year later, this object of national repudiation, maneuvering his curtailed powers with great astuteness, found himself back in popular favor. The polls showed him ahead of the embattled Chirac.

"What goes around, comes around" sounds decidedly un-French. Mitterrand substituted it for the Corneillean linearity of De Gaulle's Fifth Republic, where leaders rose, declined and departed. Mitterrand's circles are pre-Corneille; they are commedia dell'arte. He, of course, is the tricky and oddly commanding Harlequin.

He is a hard man for his countrymen to understand; he spooks them. Those who detest him are fascinated by him; those who admire him nourish a faint distrust. Catherine Nay, a French political journalist and broadcaster, shows signs of spooking. She has written a political biography that keeps the greatest possible distance from its subject. A numbing distaste prevails, punctuated by occasional grudging admiration.

The distance is more damaging to her book than the distaste. Nay sets down the details of Mitterrand's political career with reasonable clarity, though when the details turn complex, she turns murky. Her analyses are occasionally clever, but rarely penetrating. She assembles a book and a 70-year life out of a collection of daily perspectives. In a sense, "The Black and the Red" is less a history of Mitterrand than a history of what people--mostly critics--have said about him.

The title's play on Stendhal stems from the fact that Mitterrand, who came from a rural, prosperous, moderately conservative and firmly Catholic background--the "Black," in other words--only became a Socialist late in life. Before that, he was involved in a series of small parties and coalitions whose coloration shifted from right-of-center to center-left.

When he took command of the shaky and divided Socialist Party in 1971, he wasn't even a member. Nay's suggestion throughout is that for Mitterrand, power was more important than identity. In terms of political affiliation, he was what he could control.

This, to Nay and to a great many of the French, is the definition of opportunism. The author gives full, though not novel, coverage to the myriad shifts of affiliation and commitment in her subject's long career. She makes considerable play of the fact that Mitterrand held a post in the Vichy government while secretly working with the Resistance; of an early scandal when he was accused--and cleared--of passing secret documents to the communists; and of a mysterious attempt on his life that, some charged, was rigged for publicity.

Implication and Sarcasm

Her conclusion is that Mitterrand, for all his lofty manner and intellectualism--he is a superior writer--is committed to nothing but himself. The problem is not the thesis, but the superficiality with which it is presented. Largely by implication and sarcasm, in fact; and with very little intellectual engagement. It is a nervous hit and run, even in its occasional tributes.

Nay is capable of flashes of wit. At his inauguration, Mitterrand had the TV cameras follow him as he paid his respects to various men of the Left interred in the Pantheon. It was an absurdly pretentious ceremony, waxy and unctuous. The celebrant wore an expression of fixed sublimity. He looked, Nay writes, like "a movable bust propelled on legs."

Shoddy Writing

On the other hand, there is a lot of shoddy writing: The future "smiles" on Mitterrand; when he fell in love, "Cupid's arrows hit." Rather appallingly, Nay writes of one of Mitterrand's female Cabinet ministers: "A Cleopatra of modern times, she lay on her sickbed, recovering from what is normally known as a 'nose-job.' "

A searching biography of Mitterrand would be fascinating. An intelligent political appraisal would be highly interesting, at least. This book is neither. It is exactly what its subtitle proclaims: "The Story of an Ambition." To be of any use, the story of an ambition needs a person to put it inside; Nay's book doesn't provide one.

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