France's Socialist Sun King

A remarkable political career will end next May when the longest-ruling Western leader of this century--French President Franois Mitterrand--retires at 78 after 14 years in power. Looking back, it's hard to fathom how this aloof chameleon of a politician could have had such a long run. In a country where political conviction supposedly counts, Socialist Mitterrand has been as strong-spined as a crpe suzette. Starting out as an archconservative, he switched in middle age to rabid Marxism and later turned moderate, with lots of twists and turns in between.

A recent outpouring of assessments by French writers is only adding to the enigma. One new book--researched, amazingly, with the President's help--recounts his work for the pro-Nazi Vichy regime in World War II. The book has shocked Mitterrand's closest allies by disclosing his 40-year friendship, lasting into the 1980s, with the former Vichy security chief, who sent thousands of French Jews to German death camps.

Now, an astute British observer has written the first fin-de-regime analysis of Mitterrand in English. The Death of Politics: France Under Mitterrand is intelligent, readable, and harsh to the point of vitriol. John Laughland, a professor at Paris' prestigious Institute of Political Science, accuses Mitterrand of subverting France's constitution, undermining its morality, and destroying its economy. He compares the "dwarfish Mitterrand" to Shakespeare's hunchbacked Richard III, grasping for power at any cost. He even hints at murder as a tool common to both men's regimes.

Mitterrand's thirst for power, Laughland contends, has made France's President the strongest ruler in the West--against constitutional intent. In a sort of permanent coup d'etat, Mitterrand has neutralized parliament and Prime Ministers and become an elected Sun King. France now has a regime of men, not laws, says Laughland. Personality has replaced principle and created a mushy centrism, with no real difference among parties. After two divisive centuries, many welcome consensus in France. Not Laughland, who insists: "Without a real choice, there can be no real freedom." Hence his title.

A fervent Thatcherite, Laughland believes Mitterrand's social programs, rising minimum wage, and state control of industry have destroyed France's longtime economic advantage over Britain. Thanks to Mitterrand, "France is mentally unprepared to compete in world markets," he charges. As for the famed franc fort policy adopted in 1983 to build a hard currency, it has produced only recession and unemployment.

Although well researched and argued, The Death of Politics would be more convincing if it were less extreme. The only nice thing Laughland says about Mitterrand is that his strong pro-American stance helped speed the freeing of Eastern Europe. That seems a pretty fair accomplishment, but the author acknowledges it only in passing. He oddly accuses the French President of "self-interest" in backing Britain in the Falklands and the U.S. against Iraq--as if foreign policy ever stemmed from anything else. And the author doesn't give Mitterrand the credit he deserves for helping to unify Europe.

Laughland's thesis of French economic decline is shaky. The state's hand was indeed heavy in Mitterrand's early years, when companies were nationalized for purely ideological reasons. But the state's role is lessening--though Mitterrand is acquiescing, not leading. Moreover, industry has restructured more deeply than in most of Europe, and productivity has grown faster than in Britain or Germany. A strong franc may be a temporary handicap, but it's bound to help France over the long term. If Mitterrand were really an omnipotent demagogue, he would have killed that policy long ago.

Still, Laughland's portrait of France's Socialist monarch and his court is eye-opening. As a man, Mitterrand emerges as icy and vindictive. As a ruler, he comes across as a calculating hypocrite. When in opposition, Mitterrand bitterly attacked a constitutional proviso that lets the government legislate by decree, Laughland notes. Yet he has used this power far more than his predecessors. He has conveniently forgotten his promise to cut the presidential term from seven years to five. And most observers believe he named Socialist rival Michel Rocard Prime Minister not for the good of France but in the hope that Rocard would alienate voters and kill his own career.

Mitterrand doesn't delegate even minor decisions, says Laughland. Builders of the Paris Opera set up sample seats in his palace so he could choose the upholstery color. Laughland also throws in titillating personal detail, including the address of Mitterrand's mistress--11, Quai Branly--but not her name.

This lively, sharp-tongued book should be read by all who care about France. It may shock those who see this appealing country as a democracy like any other. Although Laughland exaggerates here and there--perhaps to provoke--his picture of an autocratic state run by an unaccountable elite is sadly accurate. That largely explains the French penchant for taking to the streets to get politicians' attention. For nearly a decade and a half now, l'etat, c'etait Franois. France will be better served if his successor adopts less royal ways.

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