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Mitterrand's Taste For 'Intrigue' And Contradiction

It's probably a little too pat to say that all successful political careers are marked by contradiction and compromise, though you're not likely to hear many objections to that characterization. Politics is a game of survival, and with a few sadly notable exceptions, unyielding purists seldom make it to the top.

As Philip Short demonstrates in his new biography, A Taste for Intrigue, former French President Francois Mitterrand was not one of those exceptions — he was, in a way, the rule that proves the rule. One of his country's most iconic statesmen, Mitterrand was notoriously hard to know, a slippery figure who turned contradiction and reinvention into something of an art. It's hard to imagine a tougher subject for a biographer, but Short, who has previously written books about Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, does a wonderful job depicting the man who — in the words of his own brother — "was always opposing something."

Short chronicles Mitterrand's life from his childhood in southwestern France to his death in Paris in 1996. The boy who would become president was raised in a conservative Catholic household, though he began to embrace a more liberal ideology after witnessing the widespread abuse of French prisoners of war during World War II. (Mitterrand was himself a POW in Germany, but escaped.) Bookish, shy and introverted, Mitterrand thought about becoming a literature professor before beginning his rapid ascent into French politics.

His politics were always flexible; as a member of the National Assembly and Senate before accepting a series of positions in the French Cabinet, Mitterrand was a staunch anti-Communist until realizing he needed the party's (somewhat grudging) support to win the presidency. Even in his later years, he seemed unwilling to commit to any overarching ideology. "Where did he stand politically?" asks Short, of the young Mitterrand. "He hardly knew. The schisms traversing France were mirrored within himself."

It's no surprise that Mitterrand remains extremely controversial in France — particularly after last month's local elections, in which his Socialist Party took a serious drubbing. But Short's biography is remarkably evenhanded, especially when dealing with Mitterrand's most controversial moments (and there were many). Short acknowledges that the young Mitterrand had friends and associates in the Vichy government who were rabidly anti-Semitic, but writes that the man himself harbored no hatred for Jewish people.

Short's portrait of the man, not the politician, is especially enthralling. Mitterrand's contradictions weren't just limited to his professional life — he was shy and prudish, but loyal to his friends (or, as Short has it, "pigheaded to the point of unreason"). He could be charming when he had to, but also had a well-deserved reputation for arrogance and imperiousness — rejecting the draft of a speech written by one of his staffers, Mitterrand wrote, "Who do you take me for? Who do you take yourself for?"

Biographies of politicians can often tend toward inside-baseball tedium, but Short does an excellent job keeping A Taste for Intrigue moving with sharp prose and fascinating analysis. He's also quite funny: Writing about Mitterrand's early enemies in the Free French Forces, Short notes, "Subverting government directives is not uniquely a French pastime, but, even in times of war, French officials take a delight in it which puts other nations to shame."

It's hard to claim that A Taste for Intrigue will make readers understand Mitterrand; indeed, it's not clear that the man really understood himself. He was happy, Short writes, when he worked with the French Resistance, using dozens of different aliases and blending in wherever he could. It might be tempting to psychoanalyze Mitterrand's contradictory words and actions to death, though Short has a simpler explanation: Like many people of his generation, "he was horribly confused."

And so was France. Short quotes Neville Chamberlain on the country: "She can never keep a secret for more than half an hour or a government for more than nine months." It's a cutting, and not inaccurate, observation (though it probably would be even more cutting had it come from anybody besides Neville Chamberlain). But indecision and contradiction aren't unique to France; you'll find them anywhere there are politicians, anywhere there are people. It's a point that Philip Short makes beautifully in this compelling, highly accomplished biography.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.