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A Work of Prodigious Research But A Difficult Read
on 12 June 2014
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.