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The Mystery of Jean Moulin

RESISTANCE AND BETRAYAL: The Death and Life of the Greatest Hero of the French Resistance, By Patrick Marnham, Random House: 296 pp., $25.95

September 01, 2002|DOUGLAS JOHNSON | Douglas Johnson is the author of "France and the Dreyfus Affair" and other books and is emeritus professor of French history at the University of London.

Jean Moulin has been called the greatest hero of the French Resistance. But it was 21 years after his death in German hands and 20 years after the liberation of Paris that he was so proclaimed. And the proclamation itself was very unusual. It was more like a canonization.

On the morning of Dec. 19, 1964, a large gathering assembled outside the Pantheon in Paris, the deconsecrated church that is the resting place of the heroes of the French Republic. A remarkable ceremony was presided over by President Charles de Gaulle, who was wearing his legendary uniform, that of the two-star general who founded La France Libre in London. Before the coffin containing the supposed remains of Moulin (it is not known where or how he died ) was taken into the building, the crowd heard a remarkable speech by writer Andre Malraux, in which he hailed the Resistance as the people of the night, and Moulin as their leader.

"Think of his poor, battered face," he cried. "That day, his last day, it was the face of France."

Thus began the cult of Moulin. Until this ceremony, his name was largely unknown. There had been commemorations in places that had had a particular involvement with him, such as Beziers, in the south, where he was born in 1899, and Chartres, where he had lived as prefect of the Eure-et-Loire department. But those who had died fighting in the Resistance had often been honored in localities where they were known, so there was nothing special about this. Books about the Resistance, published before 1964, had scarcely mentioned him or had referred to him by his Resistance pseudonym as "Max."

But after the Pantheon ceremony, books about him became plentiful. In 1993, it was estimated that nearly a thousand streets, squares and bridges had adopted the name of Jean Moulin, as had several lycees and universities. In this category of fame and honor, Moulin stood high, outclassed only by de Gaulle and Gen. Jacques Leclerc.

But why had de Gaulle ordered this commemoration? It was assumed that he had a particular motive. The spectacle, with the Pantheon as its background, reminded the country that, if Moulin was the leader of the people of the night, de Gaulle was the Liberator of France. And if he was to be a candidate for reelection as president in 1965, then the man who had recently abandoned Algeria needed the victories and the glory of the past. It is noticeable that when de Gaulle concluded the final Cabinet meeting of the year, on Dec. 23, 1964, he told his ministers that they could look back on a successful 12 months, culminating in the commemoration of Moulin.

Naturally, this maneuver inflamed many former members of the Resistance and encouraged them not only to question the timing of the ceremony, but also to ask whether Moulin had really been the leader of the Resistance. Had the right man been placed in the Pantheon? As Moulin became a cult figure, he also became a figure of bitter controversy.

But what sort of a man was Moulin? This is the question that Patrick Marnham addresses in what is a relatively short book (given the length of many books about Moulin), and a book that is always direct in its presentation and argument.

In chapters describing Moulin's life up to the French army's defeat in June 1940, when he was on the eve of his 41st birthday, there are certain aspects that Marnham stresses. One is what his sister, Laure Moulin, loyally called his natural sense of reserve, but which was usually called his secrecy. Another is his ambition. A French historian of the Resistance has said, with a certain delicacy, that you do not become the youngest sub-prefect in France, and then the youngest prefect, which was Moulin's achievement, simply by being a talented administrator. One of Moulin's acquaintances is quoted as saying that, as young men, they were all ambitious, but if you saw Moulin talking to a friend, he looked as if he were plotting something against himself. He appears as if he were always watchful for the right opportunity, manipulative, becoming a Freemason so that he could benefit from influential contacts.

Another aspect of Moulin's life, as shown by Marnham, is that he had difficulties with personal relations. The failure of his marriage was largely caused by his mother-in-law, who thought that he had married her young daughter because he knew that she would inherit a large sum of money on reaching the age of 21. But while he had several girlfriends and spent enjoyable holidays with people of his age, the first real friend that we are told about was Pierre Cot, whom he met in 1925 and who was elected deputy three years later. They shared many interests, such as sports and dancing, and most particularly, the politics of the Radical Socialist party.

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