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on 7 December 2013
This is a first class personal and political biography of one of the most significant French and European statesmen of the past hundred years - much of the France we see today and the European Union we see today was moulded for good or ill by Mitterand.Philip Short is extremely knowledgeable about Mitterands background , his complicated private life ,including his relationship with his wife Danielle and his long term mistress Anne Pingeot.
Short also deals with Mitterands extensive literary interests and his complex spiritual beliefs.
The real guts of the book ,however is French and EU politics.We see how Mitterand revived the moribund French Socialist Party ,allied with the Communists and then pushed them aside to take power in 1981 as the first Socialist President of the 5TH Republic.His long term as President is examined and his successes and failures analysed.Short also shows how Mitterands suspicion of a united Germany led Mitterand to believe that the new Germany must be firmly anchored in a united Europe and the best way to do this was with the common currency -the "Euro".
Mitterand gave a higher priority to politics here than to economics.We also see Mitterands relationship with other European leaders such as Schmidt and Kohl in Germany and Mrs. Thatcher in the UK.
Short recounts in detail Mitterands 15 year battle with prostate cancer (which had killed his father).Most of this Mitterand kept secret for nearly all his Presidential term.
Shorts style is elegant and readable and Mitterands seems to wlk alive again through the pages of this book. Really one can ask no more of any biography.Only two small factual errors mar the book very slightly.
1. General De Gaulle did not retire to Normandy to write his memoirs as his home at Colombey-les deux eglises is not in Normandy.
2.Helmut Kohl is not a Bavarian- he comes from Baden Wurtemburg.
Lets hope these surprising errors are corrected in later editions.However, do not let them put you off buying the book If you liked Jonathan Fenbys "The General"-you will also like this.
Let Mitterands rival Jacques Chirac have the last word. Short quotes him as saying to one of Mitterands later Prime Ministers-"Beware of Mitterand when he smiles-he is carrying a dagger."
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on 17 January 2014
This really is exceptionally well done. I had been intrigued by several good newspaper reviews but am no expert on French politics, so the question for me was: could an intelligent, general reader with no background in the subject tackle what is a massive 600 page biography? I'm pleased to say the answer is a resounding "yes". Philip Short writes very fluently, which carried me through the more challenging passages, and has a good eye for anecdote and pacing a story. The book begins with an account of the Observatory Affair, an apparent assassination attempt on Mitterrand on the streets of Paris, and after that I was gripped.
I don't know how this biography fits into the vast French scholarship on Mitterrand but there is very little of any substance published about him in English. So it is very welcome. It feels a very fair account and the author has persuaded several new sources to talk.
Be warned, though, that it is very detailed, chock-full of minor French political figures and, seemingly, an acronym on every page (there's a helpful glossary of these at the back). After making slow initial progress, I decided to stop looking-up people and acronyms, and instead put my head down and kept reading. That worked well for me as a strategy so might be worth bearing in mind if you pick up the book. Which you certainly should.
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Slightly more than half the book recounts Mitterrand's ascent to the Presidency of France in 1981: how in his youth, his friendships were on the far Right; how he was taken prisoner of war by the Germans, but escaped to Vichy; initially supported Pétain and was decorated by him; broke with Vichy in 1943 and became part of the Resistance; supported Giraud against De Gaulle; disliked the socialists and joined a centre-left party; held several Cabinet posts in the Fourth Republic; considered De Gaulle's return to power in 1968 as a military coup and denounced De Gaulle's Constitution as "a permanent coup d'état"; only committed himself to Socialism as late as 1965; managed to create a left-wing coalition (including the Communists); ran unsuccessfully for President against De Gaulle in 1965 and against Giscard d'Estaing in 1974, but finally won the Presidency in 1981. He was now as presidential and authoritarian as any previous President; but twice during his 14-year-long Presidency, his party lost control of the Assembly to the right-wing parties and he was compelled into "cohabitation" with right-wing prime ministers.

The book brings out very well Mitterrand's personality: many people found him cold, reserved, aloof, secretive and enigmatic; but he had circles of close friends to whom he was loyal under all circumstances; but he never forgave socialists who had opposed him, and that would bedevil his relationships with several leaders of his own party. Many women, younger than him, found his charm irresistible, and he had many affaires.

He ran a second family with Anne Pingeot, but he remained "loyal" to his wife Danielle (with whom he had two sons) and accepted that she, too, had a lover, Jean Balenci. When François and Danielle moved into a new house in Paris in 1973, Balenci moved in with them. In 1974 Anne, who lived ten minutes' walk away, gave birth to their daughter Mazarine, named after the 17th century Cardinal Mazarin with whose wily suppleness Mitterrand identified himself. In those days the French press did not reveal the personal lives of politicians, and Mitterrand's liaison was not published until shortly before the end of his second term as President. Nor was the fact that, only six months into his first Presidency, he was diagnosed with a prostate cancer which had already spread into the bone: his life expectancy was just three years. But he lived to complete his second presidency and died in 1996, 15 years after the diagnosis.

The book is not an easy read - it is enormously detailed, and the text is peppered with many names and with a plethora of organizations, political parties and often amorphous groupings - their acronyms take up five pages at the back - which made the politics of the Fourth and even the Fifth Republic so messy, unstable and filled with manoeuvres. A further 62 pages of notes at the back - nearly 10% of the text - are not just source references, but predominantly expand on the main text and should really have joined the other footnotes in the book rather than being end notes. But so many quite long footnotes are quite a distraction.

Throughout the book Short is not afraid to deliver his own verdicts on Mitterrand's mistakes, especially in domestic politics: that he had poor understanding of and little interest in economics; that his hesitations sometimes led to his taking necessary actions too late; that his handling of his socialist colleagues was poor. (In the last few months of his life he lambasted practically every politician with whom he had worked.) Short judges him to have been sounder, shrewder and, on the whole, more successful in his foreign policy. France's relations with the United States, Germany, Britain, the European Community and Russia bulk large in the chapters covering Mitterrand's Presidency.
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I find it difficult to reasonably rate this book. It is clearly well written and is obviously the result of prodigious research and scholarship, particularly of French sources. It is also a very comprehensive review of the life and political career of an important French statesman who was President of France for an unprecedented fourteen years and whose crowning achievements may be listed as abolition of the death penalty and the design and agreement of the Maastricht Treaty of 1991 which established the single currency and set Europe on the road to “ever closer union”. (Many of Mitterrand’s other changes such as nationalisation and alteration of the laws regarding methods of voting were ephemeral and quickly reversed.) The author, Philip Short, weighs up the evidence of Mitterrand’s involvement with the Vichy Government and his opportunistic subsequent association with repatriated POWs and the Resistance movement and, perhaps, gives a rather generous overall appraisal of Mitterrand’s wartime career. Again, the author does not flinch from examining the parallel family life lived by Mitterrand having a wife and children and a long term mistress and illegitimate daughter, and numerous other liaisons although these are generally passed over.
So far, so good, however, we have to plough through 312 pages of the 582 pages of text before we reach Mitterrand’s election as President in May 1981. This, despite the examination of the Vichy years, can make for very tedious reading at times as Mitterrand was essentially a “committee” man whose career seems to have been one of endless meetings and networking which does not make for very interesting reading unless you are a really diehard political analyst. On top of that, despite Short telling us that Mitterrand was a man of considerable charm, there seems to be little or no evidence of that but, duplicity, lying, and political opportunism seem to characterise the man. Many interesting books have been written about unpleasant people but in this case the central character has the unredeeming fault of a lack of charisma, not for nothing was he known as ‘The Sphinx’. The book does come to life at intervals when the author digresses to fill in the historical background. In particular his description of the vitriolic Algerian War (1954 to 1962) is excellent as are his explanations of the changes in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the genocidal Rwandan conflict and the role of French involvement. But in between tedium tends to be re-established with endless political jockeying for the various French municipal and national elections and the manoeuvring towards the Presidency.
I am also perhaps also out of line with other reviewers and the author in that I do not think Mitterrand was a very great statesman. His skills were in political craft not statesmanship and for a life spent in politics his lasting achievements mediocre.
Overall the, a very well written and well presented book (although a separate timeline would have been helpful) containing much information not easily available to an English reader, but hard work. This book should find its way on to the shelves of many academic institutions and, as regards the general reader, it would probably be for the best if it were left there.
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on 19 January 2014
This is a well researched piece of work that really engages, even though it's rather long. I didn't know much about the subject, save that he'd been President of France, and this book filled all the gaps in my knowledge. Mitterand was a complex, enigmatic character with a strong personality who was centre stage in European politics. His personal life was just as complex and secretive. The author writes with authority and effortlessly succeeds in bringing the reader into the world of Mitterand and murky French politics without labouring the point.
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on 12 January 2014
This is a first class book based both on a wide and deep knowledge of all that has written about Mitterrand and first hand experience of his time as President when the author was the BBC Paris correspondent. His narrative flows like a novel, there are many small anecdotes that illustrate his story, an insightful description of his family background, and his complicated private life. There is an excellent assessment of Mitterrand's achievements and failures, his relationship with de Gaulle. and his dealings other political figures in post-war France.
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on 16 February 2014
The book is very well written and readable. It reveals in fascinating detail the course of Mitterand's life, and also provides for the reader an overview of the history of France from 1917 to 1996. It is so interesting that one is drawn to refer systematically to the additional notes on each chapter. The book displays objectivity and serious scholarship.
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on 14 January 2014
An excellent biography of a complex man. The second world war history parts work best - the latter parts assume at least the fundamentals of French historial context and would benefit from expansion for a wider audience. Nevertheless, a good and informative insight into the machinations of power and the iniquities of imperialism.
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on 3 July 2014
Essentially a political biography of a very complicated person and by the time one gets to the end one wonders what on earth was he doing on the left other than trying to build a political party to oppose the Gaullists. In this there are similarities with Tony Blair. As a supporter of social justice at home there is very little to convince the reader that Mitterand thought deeply about economics. His support for policies such nationalization of industry and shorter working hours are seen as social programs aimed at keeping the communists on board whilst he busied himself manoeuvering in the political space to create a large socialist party to achieve and then sustain his position. Such a calculating person was bound to have a difficult personal life and I just cannot imagine how he would have been able to sustain that lifestyle under New Labour. Bravo for him - he lived his life largely as he wanted.
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on 6 March 2015
At last, an excellent biography of one of the greatest French Presidents ever. I met Francois Mitterand on many occasions and would agree that he was indeed a complicated individual but supremely kind and loyal to those he liked. Ambiguous he most certainly was and Mr Short has done an excellent job of unraveling the truths and half truths about this great man. Liberace once replied to a lady who asked if he had heard all the rumors going around about him, he replied that he had because he had started most of them and you would have probably got the same answer if you had posed the same question to President Mitterand!
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