AMHERST, Mass.— Ronald Tiersky, Joseph R. Eastman ’04 Professor of Political Science at Amherst College, has just published François Mitterrand: The Last French President ($29.95, 438 pp., St. Martin’s Press, NY 2000), a multi-faceted study of this controversial French president (1981-1995), whom Tiersky knew personally and often interviewed.
Since his death in 1996, Mitterrand has been remembered mainly as a Machiavellian without principle, driven by personal ambition alone. Tiersky looks more deeply at the man. He demonstrates that François Mitterrand, who lost his youthful devout Catholic faith in the World War II years, ended up a genuine existentialist, believing that there is no religious or overall meaning to life, and that each of us creates meaning through an exercise of free will. Mitterrand’s political career therefore must be understood as it expressed his philosophy of life, Tiersky suggests. But unlike the grim and desperate existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, Mitterrand’s outlook was activist and dionysian, as the world learned from the stories of his “two wives” and other women.
“The mature Mitterrand’s political culture was an eclectic composite of French ideas: realism steeped in a skepticism tinged not only with cynicism but also a certain romanticism and hope,” Tiersky writes. This deeper reading sets The Last French President apart from previous biographies and general opinion of Mitterrand. Tiersky concludes that “Mitterrand leaves France an example of the existential potential la volonté, of the individual’s capacity to forge a destiny and give existence a moral meaning even as an agnostic.”
Mitterrand had an improbable political career: in World War II he escaped from a German POW camp and then worked for the collaborationist Vichy government. He went over to the resistance, where he first came up against Charles de Gaulle, who was to cast a shadow across the rest of Mitterrand’s life. The pragmatic Mitterrand served in every French government from 1946 to 1958.
Tiersky argues that François Mitterrand, not Charles de Gaulle, was modern France’s true representative leader. His Mitterrand study is thus also the “biography” of France since World War II. The book details how Mitterrand worked to defeat the French Communists and transform the French Left; to reform French institutions and enlarge their legitimacy in French society; and, finally, how this “Machiavellian” leader worked with German chancellor Helmut Kohl and others to manage German unification and the collapse of communism, and, in the 1991 Maastricht Treaty on European Union, to set the plan for the creating a Single European Currency.