Mitterrand began his military service in 1938 and was a sergeant when World War II began. Wounded in May 1940 during the Campaign for France, he was taken prisoner by the Germans but after several attempts escaped at the end of 1941. He then made his way to Vichy, where he found a position on the Commission for War Prisoners. In 1943 he joined the Resistance, claiming that Vichy's anti-Semitism left him no choice. Under the nom de guerre of Morland, Mitterrand became a Resistance leader.
After the war Mitterrand founded and headed an organization of former prisoners and deportees. He also took up journalism and politics, joining the small centrist Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance (UDSR). Although he lost his first election attempt in 1946, shortly thereafter he won election to the Chamber of Deputies from Nièvre in Burgundy, holding that seat until 1958. In 1947 he became the youngest cabinet minister in a century as minister of veterans' affairs. He went on to serve in eleven different governments during the Fourth Republic as minister of overseas territories (1950–1951), of the interior (1954–1955), and of justice (1956–1957). After 1953 he also headed the UDSR.
Mitterrand's service in so many different cabinets earned him the reputation of a political opportunist, but he opposed the return to power of Charles de Gaulle in 1958, charging that it was a coup d'état and a threat to democracy. Mitterrand failed to win election in 1958, but the next year he was elected both to the Senate and as mayor of Château-Chinon in Burgundy. He won election to the National Assembly in 1962 and thereafter until 1981.
Mitterrand ran unsuccessfully for the French presidency in 1965 as the candidate of the moderate Left and secured communist support in the second round of balloting. He then capitalized on his strong election showing to organize the Federation of the Democratic and Socialist Left (FGDS) for the 1967 legislative elections. The FGDS included his new party, the Convention of Republican Institutions (CIR), which won 192 seats, reducing the Gaullist majority to 6 seats. However, the FDGS disintegrated in the Gaullist June 1968 landslide that followed the Events of May, and Mitterrand did not run for the presidency in 1969.
Mitterrand then merged his own CRI with the Socialist Party (PS) and, despite his own lack of socialist credentials, assumed the leadership of the PS in 1971. He again ran for the presidency in 1974 but lost by a single percentage point to Valéry Giscard d'Éstaing. Meanwhile, in 1977 the socialists broke with the communists, enhancing Mitterrand's position as a moderate.
Mitterrand won the French presidential election of May 1981, ending twenty-three years of conservative control. He then called a general election in which the PS won an absolute majority in the new assembly. As president, Mitterrand carried out a sweeping legislative agenda. He nationalized major industries and financial institutions; raised worker benefits and reduced the workweek to thirty-six hours; increased the minimum wage and benefits for single mothers, retirees, and the handicapped; established a ministry of women's rights; liberalized abortion rights; and abolished the death penalty. He also increased defense spending with the creation of a rapid reaction force and the modernization of the nation's nuclear strike force. France also continued nuclear testing. Sharply increased government spending, however, created great budget deficits and an economic turndown, forcing Mitterrand into an austerity program in 1982 and decreased social spending.
In foreign affairs, Mitterrand supported European integration. He also backed Britain in the 1982 Falklands War, and he established a close working relationship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Mitterrand's state visit to Israel in 1981 was the first by a French president.
The 1986 legislative elections produced a Gaullist majority and forced Mitterrand to name rightist Jacques Chirac as premier. The resulting cohabitation, as it came to be known for a socialist president and a Gaullist premier, worked surprisingly well and pleased the French electorate. Mitterrand concentrated on international affairs, only occasionally intervening in domestic issues. He defeated Chirac in the 1988 presidential elections, winning 54 percent of the vote.
Mitterrand concentrated on foreign policy issues, including the Maastricht Treaty, construction of the cross-Channel tunnel with Britain, and support for both the 1991 Gulf War, in which French military forces participated, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in Bosnia. Mitterrand was also much interested in building and transforming the Paris skyline with such pet projects as the new d'Orsay Museum, the renovation of the Louvre Museum, and the construction of the Bastille Opera and La Défense, much to the dismay of many traditionalists. His second presidential term also brought scandal, including fresh controversies over his wartime record and revelations of a daughter by a longtime mistress. Consumed by prostate cancer, Mitterrand resigned the presidency in May 1995 and died in Paris on 8 January 1996.
Spencer C. Tucker
Giesbert, F.-O. Le Président. Paris: Seuil, 1990.; Mitterrand, François. The Wheat and the Chaff. New York: Seaver, 1982.; Northcutt, W. Mitterrand: A Political Biography. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1992.; Ross, George. The Mitterrand Experiment: Continuity and Change in Modern France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.