Elected to the Chamber of Deputies as a Radical-Socialist in 1932, Mendès-France was its youngest member. He was next undersecretary for finance in Léon Blum's second government but joined the French Air Force as a lieutenant in
September 1939 at the outbreak of World War II. He flew in Syria and in the campaign for France. Briefly imprisoned by the Vichy government following the French military defeat, he escaped abroad and joined the Free French in London. He was a captain in a bomber squadron when, in November 1943, General Charles de Gaulle named him minister of finance in the Free French government at Algiers.
As minister for national economy in the provisional government at the end of the war, Mendès-France wanted to issue new bank notes and freeze accounts as a means to halt inflation, end the black market, and uncover information on profiteering from collaboration with the Germans. He also proposed an austerity program. Many opposed this draconian economic plan, including Finance Minister René Pleven, and in a fateful decision de Gaulle rejected it, whereupon Mendès-France resigned.
Mendès-France later became executive director for France in the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Washington, French administrator of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and representative to the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council. Over the next two decades he was often in opposition to government policies, warning against the dangers of drift ( immobilisme). He was also critical of France's failure to grant independence to the protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia, and he opposed the Indochina War.
In May 1954 the French were defeated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, forcing Premier Joseph Laniel from office. Mendès-France assumed the premiership on 18 June. He neither smoked nor drank, his preferred beverage being milk. Even rarer for a French politician was his candid approach to problem solving. His goal was to reinvigorate and modernize the French economy, but he was forced to spend most of his energies on foreign affairs.
On 20 June 1954 Mendès-France announced his intention to end the war in Indochina within thirty days or resign. He won his controversial gamble at the Geneva Conference on the last day of the deadline. With the war terminated, he set in motion events that led to independence for Morocco and Tunisia in 1956. Also controversial was his failure to support the European Defense Community (EDC), which was defeated in the Chamber while he was premier.
When he attempted to bring about domestic reform, attacking alcoholism and attempting to modernize the economy by opening it up to free competition, Mendès-France encountered stiff opposition. Hated by many as a Jew, as a reformer, for his opposition to the EDC, and as "the gravedigger of the French Empire," the Chamber ousted him from power on 5 February 1955. The Radical-Socialist Party then split, and Mendès-France lost his post as party leader.
Although brief, Mendès-France's premiership was one of the most notable in the history of the Fourth Republic. The failure of his experiment disillusioned many young French reformers and helped pave the way for de Gaulle's return to power in 1958. Mendès-France remained in the Chamber of Deputies until defeated for reelection in 1958. Reelected in 1967, he was defeated in the Gaullist landslide the following year. Mendès-France died in Paris on 18 October 1982.
Spencer C. Tucker
Matthews, Ronald. The Death of the Fourth Republic. New York: Praeger, 1954.; Mendès-France, Pierre, and Gabriel Ardant. Economics and Action. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955.; Werth, Alexander. The Strange History of Mendès-France and the Great Struggle over French North Africa. London: Barrie Books, 1957.