Mendès-France, Pierre (1907–1982)

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French politician.

Pierre Mendès-France was descended on his father's side from a Portuguese Jewish family that had settled in Bordeaux in the sixteenth century; his mother belonged to a Jewish family from Alsace. Although he was a victim of anti-Semitism virtually throughout his career and served as head of the French government only briefly, from 19 June 1954 to 4 February 1955, Mendès-France was one of the country's most esteemed politicians in modern times.

Some people of great ability never become prominent because circumstances do not permit it, but this was not the case with Mendès-France. Elected the youngest French deputy in 1932 after five years as a lawyer—he was barely twenty when he obtained his law degree—Mendès-France never compromised in terms of fairness and almost never on behalf of political realities. Perhaps the most significant example of his intransigence took place in 1945, when he was minister of the national economy in the government led by Charles de Gaulle. He resigned when his plan for a postwar economic reform was rejected by de Gaulle, who feared that its rigor might provoke discontent and disruption in a country already weakened by World War II.

Throughout his career, Mendès-France was particularly involved with national economic affairs, about which his competence was universally acknowledged. After World War II, he participated in a number of organizations concerned with international finance. Even after he abandoned the Radical Party, which he had joined when a young man, for the Socialists in 1960, he was skeptical regarding the Socialists' economic proposals, which he considered imprudent. But socialism for him was the beginning of political and economic democracy, and despite his own inclination for the economy, he became a pure politician.

Profoundly left-wing, secular, and republican, Mendès-France had intended to preserve the Radical Party—a centrist party originally "radical" due to its anticlericalism—along these lines. When in the late 1920s he felt the party moving to the right, he joined a group of "young turks" to return it to its leftward path. He was among those of the Radical Party most committed to the Popular Front in the mid-1930s and became undersecretary of state for the economy in the brief second government led by Léon Blum (13 March to 8 April 1938). When the Radicals deserted the Popular Front, Mendès-France found himself, not for the last time in his life, marginalized.

Mobilized in 1939, Mendès-France was one of the members of parliament who, after the French defeat, embarked on the vessel Massilia, hoping to pursue the war from North Africa. But the Vichy government had him arrested in Morocco, brought back to France, and imprisoned. He escaped in June 1941 and joined the Free French, serving as a pilot until 1943, when General de Gaulle appointed him finance commissioner of the French Committee for National Liberation.

After leaving the Gaullist government at war's end, Mendès-France once again found himself outside the centers of power. Although still faithful to the Radical Party, he criticized its policies and long remained isolated, until after the crucial French defeat in Indochina at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Now he was appointed prime minister. Having refused to accept the Communists in government, he gained their lasting hostility. He succeeded in brokering the Geneva agreements with the Vietnamese in 1954, putting an end to the war in Indochina and to the French colonial presence there. Although he granted "internal autonomy" to Tunisia, he lost the case for the independence of Algiers, where an insurrection had started in November 1954. In fact, he was the victim of a heterogeneous coalition that included Communists, right-wing politicians, and pro-European members of the Mouvement Républicain Populaire (Popular Republican Movement), together with the Radicals who had not forgiven him for not supporting the Communauté Européenne de Defense (European Defense Community), a project rejected on 30 August 1954. In February 1955, at age forty-seven, Mendès-France was driven from power and would never return.

Nevertheless, he was highly popular among the general public and was vigorously supported by the new magazine L'Express, started by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber and Françoise Giroud. Mendès-France was the symbol of the Front Républicain that won the elections in 1956. But René Coty, who had become president of the republic 1953, chose as prime minister the Socialist Guy Mollet. Mendès-France, who became Mollet's minister of state, resigned the post in disagreement on the Algerian question.

When de Gaulle returned to power in 1958 in the context of a political and constitutional crisis, Mendès-France disapproved. He viewed the general's return as undemocratic and remained a permanent and convinced opponent of the new Fifth Republic. In 1958 he lost his parliamentary seat—he represented the region of Eure—and only briefly returned to office in 1967, as a deputy from Grenoble. After playing an ambiguous role in the response to the demonstrations and civil unrest of May 1968, he again lost elected office. Mendès-France's last incursion into politics was to team up with Gaston Defferre during the presidential elections in 1969, after the resignation of de Gaulle in the wake of the events of May 1968. Winning just 5 percent of the vote demonstrated that, however eminent his public personality, he had no future in electoral politics.

Devoting himself to writing and traveling, he evinced sympathy with the renaissance of the left-wing coalition Union de la Gauche. Despite his mistrust of the Socialist François Mitterrand, who had served as his minister of the interior, Mendès-France was moved by his election to the presidency in 1981.

In all, Mendès-France's career was a singular one, and his persona and personality were unique to the era in which he lived. Perhaps just because he was a highbrow intellectual of impeccable morality, a Cassandra forever forecasting future perils, he could never find his true place in the political life of France.

See alsoFrance; Gaulle, Charles de.


Bédarida, François, and Jean-Pierre Rioux, eds. Pierre Mendès France et le mendésisme: L'expérience gouvernementale (1954–1955) et sa postérité. Paris, 1985.

Gros, Simone. Pierre Mendès France au quotidien. Paris, 2004.

Lacouture, Jean. Pierre Mendès France. Paris, 1981.

Nicolet, Claude. Pierre Mendès-France; ou, le métier de Cassandra. Paris, 1959.

Rizzo, Jean-Louis. Mendès France; ou, la rénovation en politique. Paris, 1993.

Jean-Jacques Becker

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Mendès-France, Pierre (1907–1982)

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