The Associated Press
PARIS Ä Shrouded in half-truths and rumors for nearly a half century, President Francois Mitterrand's role in the pro-Nazi Vichy regime during World War II has been brought to light in a widely acclaimed book published this week.
"Une Jeunesse Francaise" (A French Youth), a 616-page work by investigative reporter Pierre Pean, answers many questions Mitterrand never wanted to confront.
Previous biographies on the president have skimmed over the war years, concentrating on his childhood and rise in the Socialist Party starting in the mid-1950s.
Working from archives, tracking down lost photos, letters and previously unpublished documents, Pean managed to piece together the Mitterrand enigma.
And then came the unexpected: when confronted with Pean's findings, Mitterrand threw open his personal archives and cooperated fully.
Yes, the young Mitterrand was an ardent follower of collaborationist leader Philippe Petain and believed in the "national revolution" that begat the strict, anti-Jewish laws of 1940-41. As early as 1935, Mitterrand participated in an anti-foreigner rally in Paris.
After the French defeat of 1940, Mitterrand joined the ultranationalist "Legion des Combattants" (Fighters' Legion) which later became the feared militia that relentlessly hunted Jews and Resistance fighters.
Yes, Mitterrand had close ties with "La Cagoule," an outlawed, extreme-right group that sought to overthrow the republic, and yes, he never repudiated his friendships with some of its leaders.
At 26, Mitterrand also received the "francisque," Vichy's highest award, from Petain. He published articles in Petainist magazines that also carried rabidly anti-Semitic diatribes.
And when he joined the Resistance in 1943 Ä not earlier as he long maintained Ä he did it without repudiating his Vichy past, its ideology or his friends, Pean writes.
In short, the book contends, Mitterrand jumped ship when he felt the tide begin to turn Ä a political decision, not a change of heart. As reviewer Philippe Rochette put it in the left-leaning daily Liberation, Mitterrand "did not join the Resistance, he slid gradually into it."
Edwy Plenel, writing in the newspaper Le Monde, called it "an investigation (conducted) with remarkable rigor and precision ... Without overemphasizing (Mitterrand's) silences, half-truths and lies about who he was, this quiet demonstration becomes all the more powerful."
Among the book's highlights is the cover photograph showing Mitterrand with Petain. Pean knew the photo existed, but it had disappeared from the archives. Last June, it came in the mail Ä addressed to him by the widow of a collaborator killed in 1944.
Although several faces had been blotted out, Mitterrand authenticated the picture.
"Francois Mitterrand does not seem embarrassed by his past," Pean was quoted as saying in an interview this week in Paris-Match magazine.
"What's more, he thought the picture was taken in 1943, which, symbolically, compromises him much more. When I told him the real date (Oct. 15, 1942), all he said was 'Oh, fine."
Pean quoted Mitterrand as telling him, "In troubled times, especially when one is young, it is hard to make choices. I think I came out of it pretty well."
Though Mitterrand's sympathies with Petain are well-known Ä he gave up the practice of laying a wreath on his grave only after years of protests from Jewish groups Ä few people were aware of his links with the extreme right.
Also on record for the first time is Mitterrand's friendship with Rene Bousquet, Vichy's police chief who was responsible for the deportation of Jewish children.
Bousquet was killed by a crazed gunman last year while awaiting trial for crimes against humanity.
According to Pean, Mitterrand thought of Bousquet as "exceptionally brilliant ... pleasant, direct, almost brutal."
The book avoids outright condemnation of Mitterrand, instead suggesting that his choices were typical in a country where the vast majority of people accepted Vichy rule.
Many critics say the book has created a new enigma: why, at the end of his long career, did Mitterrand finally decide to come clean?
Pean said he believes Mitterrand was convinced the truth would have come out eventually.
"It's quite astonishing. He knew when he opened the archives that they contained potentially damaging documents. And yet, as time went on, he gave me more and more."
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