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François Mitterrand was not only the cleverest political tactician in France, and probably in Europe, he was also the most cynical. As a student during the 1930s he had supported the extreme Right. After the war he learnt the dark political arts of the Fourth Republic when he served as both minister of the interior and minister of justice. In 1959, his political career nearly came to an end when he was the target of an “assassination attempt” that — as was quickly discovered — he had organised himself. In search of sympathetic publicity, he had paid an accomplice to machine-gun his car late at night in central Paris, while he crouched behind a nearby hedge. Under a polished exterior Mitterrand was a rough customer, and he had always loathed both de Gaulle and his constitution. The two men had got off to a bumpy start during the war. Early in 1942, following his return from captivity as a prisoner-of-war, Mitterrand found work as a Vichy bureaucrat. His efforts were rewarded by Pétain with the Francisque, the Vichy equivalent of France’s highest peacetime decoration, the Legion of Honour.

Then, in 1943, following the German occupation of the southern “Free Zone”, Mitterrand sensed that the tide of battle was turning and, like hundreds of other Vichy officials, hedged his bets; in his case he formed a resistance group, recruited from French prisoners of war. This original initiative did not impress de Gaulle when the two were eventually introduced. “The leader of a resistance network of prisoners-of-war!” said the General. “What next? A network of hairdressers?”

A country with an executive president needs to elect a man or woman who places the national interest first. A master chess player like Mitterrand who was also a terrific humbug was always likely to cause problems. During his 14 years as president Mitterrand enjoyed real success in foreign policy and at least one real success in domestic policy — the electoral destruction of his original allies, the French Communist Party.

But in 1986, faced with the likelihood of legislative defeat and the prospect of becoming the first president who would have to sit out two years of cohabitation — that is, power-sharing with a right-wing government — Mitterrand decided to weaken his opponents in a classic Fourth Republic move. He had noticed that an obscure group of xenophobic nationalists, which normally polled less than 1 per cent, was gaining in popularity in local elections. Mitterrand calculated that if he introduced proportional representation he could split the right-wing vote. It was the first blow to de Gaulle’s model constitution and the foreseeable result was that Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, which had previously held one seat in the Assembly, took 35 seats and was transformed into a prominent political force. So, by changing the voting system for his personal advantage, the socialist Mitterrand became the godfather of France’s extreme Right.

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