Hugh McDonnell presented a paper at the workshop organised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh Network: ‘Relations between Britain and France in World War Two’, 3rd of May 2017, Institut Français d’Ecosse, Edinburgh.
In 1994, as President Mitterrand approached the end of his second term in office, and indeed of his life, controversy erupted around his Vichy past. Prompted by the publication of Pierre Péan’s Une jeunesse française: François Mitterrand, 1934-1947, the subsequent weeks-long furore in the press highlighted the ambiguity of Mitterrand’s role during the Second World War, as well as his seemingly obfuscating explanations for that past.
Like many Frenchmen of his generation, Mitterrand’s war trajectory was tortuous. Enlisting in the French army, he was wounded and detained as a POW before escaping. Lending his talents to Vichy in the Commissariat for Prisoners of War, Mitterrand was awarded the francisque in the spring of 1943 - Marshal Petain’s personal decoration for services to his National Revolution. But breaking with Vichy in the course of the same year, Mitterrand embarked for Britain in November 1943. Networking here for the following three and a half months with the French exile community and their British hosts, London was the launching pad for his activism in the Resistance back in France.
This paper critically examines Mitterrand’s residence in London at this time from two perspectives. First, how it fitted into the official story of marking a key turn from Mitterrand’s Pétainism to resister. And secondly, how his role there has been represented, both by contemporaries and retrospectively. I highlight how his path crossed or related to those of key figures in the French Resistance, broadly conceived, as well as British figures and organisations: De Gaulle, Henri Giraud, Henri Frenay, Jean Moulin, Michel Cailliau, as well as the London-based Special Operations Executive (SOE). This includes an examination of his rationalisation
to his London interlocutors of his previous work at Vichy and their reactions; the nature of the contacts that Mitterrand cultivated there, and the preparation of the role he was to play subsequently in the war; and finally, how this was mobilised or utilised in post-war political life.