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Pierre Mendès-France

Pierre Mendès-France

Pierre Mendès-France (pronounced Man-dez-Fronce) (10 January 1907 - 18 October 1982), French politician, was born in Paris, into a family of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish origin. He was educated at the University of Paris, graduating with a doctorate in law and becoming the youngest member of the Paris bar in 1928. In 1924 he joined the Radical Socialist Party, the traditional party of the French middle-class centre-left, not to be confused with the mainstream socialist party of the time, the SFIO.

In 1932 Mendès-France was elected to the National Assembly as a deputy for the Eure: he was the Assembly's youngest member. His ability was recognised at once, and in the 1936 Popular Front government of Léon Blum he was appointed Secretary of State for Finance. When World War II broke out he joined the French Air Force. After the French surrender he was arrested by the Vichy authorites and imprisoned, but in 1942 he escaped and succeeded in reaching Britain, where he joined the Free French forces of Charles de Gaulle.

After serving with the Free French Air Force, Mendès-France was sent by de Gaulle as his Finance Commissioner in Algeria, and then headed the French delegation to the 1944 monetary conference at Bretton Woods. When de Gaulle returned to liberated Paris in September 1944, he appointed Mendès-France as Minister for National Economy in the provisional government.

But Mendès-France soon fell out with the Finance Minister, René Pleven. Mendès-France favoured state regulation of wages and prices to control inflation, while Pleven favoured free-market policies. When de Gaulle sided with Pleven, Mendès-France resigned. De Gaulle valued Mendès-France's abilities, however, and appointed him as a director of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and as French representative at the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

In 1947, when normal French politics resumed under the Fourth Republic, Mendès-France was re-elected to the National Assembly, and became leader of the Radicals. He first tried to form a government in June 1953, but was unable to gain the numbers in the Assembly. From 1950 he had a consistent opponent of French colonialism, and by 1954 France was becoming hopelessly embroiled in colonial conflicts in both Indo-China and North Africa. When French forces were defeated by the Vietnamese Communists at Dien Bien Phu in June 1954, the government of Joseph Lanier resigned and Mendès-France formed a government. Among his ministers was the young Francois Mitterand.

Mendès-France immediately negotiated an armistice with Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Communist leader. There was, he said, no choice but total withdrawal from Indo-China, and the Assembly supported him by 471 votes to 14. Neverthless nationalist opinion was shocked, and Catholic opinion opposed abandoning the Vietnamese Catholics to Communism. A tirade of abuse, much of it anti-Semitic, was directed at Mendès-France. Jean-Marie Le Pen, then a Poujadist member of the Assembly, described his "patriotic, almost physical repulsion" for Mendès-France.

Undeterred, Mendès-France next came to an agreement with Habib Bourguiba, the nationalist leader in Tunisia, for independence by 1956, and began discussions with the nationalist leaders in Morocco for a French withdrawal. He also favoured concessions to the nationalists in Algeria, but the fact that there were a million French settlers there meant that there could be no easy way of out that situation.

Mendès-France hoped that the Radical party would become the party of medernisation and renewal in French politics, by-passing the SFIO, a party mired in nostalgia for the 1930s. An advocate of greater European integration, he helped bring about the formation of the Western European Union, and proposed far-reaching economic reform. He also favoured defence co-operation with other European countries, but the National Assembly rejected the proposal for a European Defence Community, mainly because of misgivings about German participation.

The conservative wing of the Radical Party, led by Edgar Faure, was not willing to follow Mendès-France either on economic reform or on withdrawal from North Africa, and his cabinet fell in February 1955 on the issue of Tunisia. in 1956 he served as Minister of State in the cabinet headed by the SFIO leader Guy Mollet, but resigned over the issue of Algeria, which was coming to dominate French politics. The split with Faure led to Mendès-France resigning as party leader in 1957.

Like most of the French left, Mendès-France opposed de Gaulle's seizure of power in May 1958, when the mounting crisis in Algeria brought about a breakdown in the Fourth Republic system. He led the Union of Democratic Forces, an anti-Gaullist group, but at the November 1958 elections he lost his seat in the Assembly. In 1959 he was expelled from the Radical Party, whose majority faction supported de Gaulle.

Mendès-France then joined the United Socialist Party (PSU), a small party of the intellectual left. In 1967 he returned to the Assembly as a PSU member for the Isère, but again lost his seat in de Gaulle's 1968 landslide election victory. When Mitterand formed a new Socialist Party in 1971, Mendès-France supported him, but did not attempt another political come-back.