The Secrets of the Sphinx

The Secret Life of François Mitterrand

One man represents the spirit and reality of modern France - two-time president, François Mitterrand, still revered today as statesman, author and resistance fighter. Was he also a crook, fraud, spy, collaborator and murderer?

The former Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, recently organised a series of city walks in honour of a former French president and named a street after him. It runs along the banks of the Seine, between the leafy Tuileries Gardens and the splendour of the Louvre Palace in whose cobbled forecourt now stands a giant glass and steel pyramid placed there by the great statesman. At the same time, the municipality of Jarnac bought the house where the president had been born and turned it into a museum. Such veneration of safely dead politicians happens in democracies all the time. Imagine though, the outcry not just in the United States but around the world, if the president in question had been Richard Nixon.

Nixon left office after being caught bugging his Democrat opponents in the Watergate Hotel. Beside François Mitterrand, the man whose memory the French are now honouring with utterly straight faced esteem, Nixon was a butterfingered amateur. 

Not only did Mitterrand regularly, even compulsively, bug his political opponents, he bugged anyone who caught his interest, including good-looking actresses. He may also have been mad, a Nazi collaborator, a Communist spy, a multi-million dollar fraudster, a murderer, bewitched by Margaret Thatcher and twice-elected President of France. 

Notoriously secretive (he was nicknamed “le Sphinx”), only now are the more unsavoury details of his career coming light. Yet France doesn’t seem to care. According to one 2005 Sofres poll, nearly two-thirds of the French have a positive memory of the Mitterrand years, and a similar proportion say he will have a “great” place in history. Another poll makes him France’s most popular leader of the last half-century, according to 35% of respondents. One of Mitterrand’s loudest cheerleaders is former culture minister Jack Lang who describes “Mitterrandisme” as “the power of the will and the certainty that one can move mountains by force of spirit.” Here are some lesser-known aspects of “Mitterrandisme” in action.

1930s: Mitterrand the “Hoodie”. Before the Second World War, the fragile Frebnch democracy was beset by street terrorism carried out by gangs and secret societies of the extreme right and left. One of the most violent was fascist “La Cagoule” (The Hood) which made a practice of targeting Jewish public figures for attack and assassination. Despite many accusations, the young François Mitterrand, then a student at the prestigious Institute of Political Science (“Sciences-Po in Paris”), always denied he was a “Cagoule” activist though two contemporary photos have since come to light. One places him at a demonstration against ‘l’invasion métèque’ (the mixed race, ie Jewish, invasion); the other shows him in the middle of a street disturbance targeting a Jewish professor at his college. The daughter of “La Cagoule’s leader married Mitterrand’s older brother. After the war, Mitterrand used his political connections to protect the organisation’s leading financier, Eugène Schueller, (the founder of international cosmetics brand, L'Oréal), from prosecution.

1940s: The Francisque. Mitterrand’s supporters focus on the important work he did for the Resistance during World War II. As a high-up official in the puppet Vichy government, Mitterrand was able to arrange travel and identity papers for those opposing Nazi rule. What has only become clear recently is that Mitterrand was not simply posing as a loyal Vichy official, he was one. He did not join the Resistance until late in 1943, by which time it was obvious that the Allies would win the war. De Gaulle professed that he never trusted the ambitious young civil servant. A photograph from this time shows a beaming Mitterrand shaking the hand of Marshal Pétain, the rabid anti-semite heading the Vichy government, as he received the Francisque, the highest civilian honour that Vichy could bestow. Mitterrand routinely denied receiving this medal until hard evidence emerged during the late ’50s. As president, Mitterrand tried to prevent the trials of his Vichy colleagues, Maurice Papon, Paul Touvier and Rene Bousquet, all of whom were wanted for crimes against humanity during the Occupation. Every year up till his death, Mitterrand would lay a wreath upon Marshal Pétain’s grave.

1954: The Military Secrets Scandal. Mitterrand, rising rapidly, was interior minister in one of the many governments of the 4th Republic. The Paris police chief, Jean Baylot, was a hardline anti-Communist, a kind of French Edgar Hoover but more paranoid if possible. Two weeks into his term at the interior ministry, Mitterrand fired him. Baylot had been working on a case that suggested someone in the National Defence Council was leaking its minutes to the USSR, and the evidence, he said, was pointing to Mitterrand. After his dismissal, the investigation was closed, and when Mitterrand became president, the files on the case were destroyed.

1958: The Observatory Affair. On the night of 15 October, Mitterrand was returning home after a dinner in the Boulevard Saint-Germain when his car was machine-gunned by gunmen of the right-wing terror group O.A.S. (Organisation de l'Armée Secrète, Secret Army Organisation). Mitterrand told police that the attack had been carried out after a furious car-chase and that he had escaped only by jumping over a hedge into the gardens in the Avenue de l’Observatoire. Later, to general derision, he was forced to admit that he had set up the whole incident himself to gain public support at a time when he was shifting from the Gaullist right to the Socialist left. His own revised explanation was limp: the gunman, Robert Pesquet, had been threatened with death by the O.A.S if he didn’t kill Mitterrand so Mitterrand had stage-managed the event because he felt sorry for Pesquet.

1982: Bugs and the Bond Girl. In 1982, one year after taking office as president, Mitterrand set up a private secret service, the Elysée Cell. Originally conceived as a specialist anti-terrorist unit answerable to the president, the team carried out secret operations for Mitterrand and bugged journalists, lawyers and businessmen. One target was the Chanel model and Bond actress Carole Bouquet to whom Mitterrand was attracted. Another was the editor of Le Monde newspaper, who at the time was investigating claims – since shown to be true – that the Cell had framed evidence against alleged Irish terrorists in the early 1980s. Also bugged was the writer Jean-Edern Hallier who was investigating the story of Mitterrand's illegitimate daughter, Mazarine. On one occasion the Elysée learned that Hallier was to appear on a television chat-show and had the programme cancelled. Others were journalists and lawyers looking into the 1985 Rainbow Warrior affair. The existence of the secret listening-room was not revealed until 1993 along with the names of the 150 people tapped in this bizarre operation.

1988: Elf of the Nation. The French state oil company, Elf, France’s largest enterprise was robbed of over 2 billion francs – 305 million euros – by its top executives during Mitterrand’s second seven-year term, and, much of it, was on his behalf. Elf’s boss, Loïk Le Floch-Prigent later justified his misappropriation of company funds with the defence: “I was only answerable to one man” – Mitterrand. As a state enterprise, Elf had its executives appointed by the president of the Republic. Le Floch-Prigent operated the Elf slush fund, “caisse noire” according to Mitterrand’s instructions: “This system existed essentially for the Gaullist party, the RPR; I informed President François Mitterrand, who told me that it would be better to spread it about a bit, without leaving out the RPR all the same.” In this way, all of France’s major parliamentary parties, left and right, benefited from Elf’s, or, more exactly, Mitterrand’s patronage and payroll. Under Mitterrand’s directions, for example, Elf funds were used to buy a magnificent chateau at Louveciennes from one of the president’s friends at a vastly inflated price so that Mitterrand could take occasional golfing outings at a nearby links. Elf cash was also allegedly used to set up Anne Pingeout, mother of his secret daughter Mazarine, in her own business. A further €10 million ($12.5m) was passed on to his great friend and ally, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, to help him win the elections of 1994, a matter no under investigation by the German police.

1980’s: Murder et cie? In 1985, President Mitterrand personally ordered France’s secret service, the DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, General Directorate for External Security) to place the mine on the Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior, that killed the photographer, Fernando Pereira. What is not known – or at least not yet proven – is whether Mitterrand used the secret service to silence embarrassing personalities closer to home. Chief amongst them was Pierre Bérégovoy who served as Mitterrand’s prime minister during a time of ever intensifying investigation into political corruption. On 1 May 1993, having left office, he was found by a canal in a coma with a bullet in his head. Police investigators ruled his subsequent death as a suicide while depressed. This confirmed his bodyguard's deposition that the former prime minister was with him when he grabbed the guard's gun. The bodyguard later retracted the statement that he was present at Beregevoy’s death and submitted that the gun was taken from the glove compartment of the official car. Beregevoy left no note and Mitterrand took possession of his diary which was never returned to the family. A senior police official did inform the family that one theory under investigation was that the politician had been murdered by frogmen who emerged from the canal while Beregevoy waited to meet a representative from the Elysée Palace. This theory, for which no evidence was found, was also voiced by François de Grossouvre, a senior advisor to the Mitterrand presidency with responsibility for the secret services. He was found dead in his office in the Elysée in April 1994, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot.

1990s: A Very Sick Man – Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher. In October 1994 President Mitterrand gave a surprise interview in Le Figaro newspaper. He revealed that he was suffering from prostate cancer, an illness for which he had first been treated from the first years of his presidency. From November 1981, all the health bulletins issuing from the Elysée Palace had been faked. What effect the heavy load of drugs he took to control his illness had on his judgement and his larger mental well-being can only be guessed at. However, in 1982, on the advice of his personal astrologer (that’s right, astrologer) the president began seeing a psychiatrist, Ali Magoudi. In the super-secret sessions that followed, Mitterrand laid bare his soul. He suffered, according to Magoudi’s book Rendez-vous: The psychoanalysis of François Mitterrand’ (2005), from paranoid tendencies, anxiety attacks and, it seems, a peculiar yen for the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She had, he mused, “the eyes of Stalin, the lips of Marilyn Monroe”. During the Falklands War, he announced that “she threatens to launch the atomic weapon against Argentina – unless I supply her with the secret codes that render deaf and blind the missiles we have sold to the Argentinians. Margaret has given me very precise instructions on the telephone.” (Admiral Henry Leach, chief of the British naval staff at the time, has already recorded: “We did not contemplate a nuclear attack and did not make any even potentially preparatory moves for such action.”) Magoudi asked if Mitterrand felt “symbolically emasculated” dealing with the Iron Lady. “Of course it is only her power that matters”, Mitterrand mused, “… But that’s why I admire Thatcher so much.”’ Sadly, the passion seems not to have been reciprocated. Thatcher’s own memoirs remember him as “a self- conscious intellectual... bored by detail and possibly contemptuous of economics” but, she ends charitably, “oddly enough, I quite liked [him].”


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