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US spent years sizing-up France’s future presidents

Photo: Jacques PAILLETTE

According to 1970s diplomatic cables published on the WikiLeaks website, US diplomats at the time were closely tracking the political careers of two future French presidents: François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.


A new trove of US diplomatic and intelligence cables from the 1970s has revealed Washington’s keen interest in internal political battles in France at that time, with particular attention given to the country’s rising political stars.

Made available online by WikiLeaks this week, the 1.7 million cables cover the period from 1973 to 1976. France is mentioned 372,309 times, more than any country other than the United Kingdom.

The cables were previously declassified and had been available exclusively at the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

They depict France as a state desperate to maintain its influence on the global stage, and as a battleground for intense clashes between established and up-and-coming political groups and players.

At the time US diplomats were closely following the career paths of two promising leaders: François Mitterand and Jacques Chirac, both of whom would eventually become French presidents.

‘The foremost spokesman of the left’

Mitterrand made a big impression on former US ambassador John N. Irwin II well before he became France’s president in 1981. The diplomat noted in a cable dated June 28, 1973, that Mitterrand’s speech in front of delegates at a Socialist Party congress four days earlier “was a brilliant, convincing example of oratory and political mastery.”

Irwin took stock in the rise of the Socialist Party (PS) as “one of the three major political parties in France” in the early 70s. However, he questioned the group’s ability to hold onto political gains without Mitterrand’s leadership:

“The party’s organization and cohesiveness remain fragile… It has, in fact, become a one-man show… and there is serious question as to whether its size and increasing influence could be sustained in Mitterrand’s absence.

“He thus emerges from the congress as the uncontested leader of the PS and as the foremost spokesman for the entire left in France,” Irwin’s cable concluded.

Rather than feel threatened by a presidential nominee who once promised to nationalize France’s banks when in office, US diplomats appeared to be encouraged by Mitterrand’s moderate left-wing ideology.

After his 1975 trip to the Soviet Union, where he had a personal meeting with then-president Leonid Brezhnev, the US embassy in Paris noted that Mitterrand was “revolted by his entire experience” and that “Soviet socialism is definitely not the kind he has in mind for France.”

Later that year, in a November 18 cable, US officials said: “More than anyone else, Mitterrand has been responsible for freeing the PS from a certain ideological rigidity.”

‘A love of the United States’

While Mitterrand is depicted as a natural leader who worked behind the scenes to build consensus, his conservative opponent and successor Jacques Chirac is painted by the cables as a somewhat opportunistic figure who fought political rivals head on.

The US embassy took special notice of Chirac when he became the country’s prime minister in 1974, two decades before he would move into the Elysée Presidential Palace.

In a cable dated May 29, 1974, then-ambassador Irwin described Chirac as a “political animal” that was part of a new generation of French leaders.

“Chirac is a bare-knuckled adversary who values toughness. In some government circles he is known as the “bulldozer” (said to be Pompidou’s name for him) because of his combative attitude,” Irwin noted, later adding that Chirac “lacks a human touch”.

Despite the somewhat unbecoming description, the US diplomat also mused about Chirac’s fascination with American culture, which he picked up after a cross-country visit that began in Massachusetts in the summer of 1953, according to the ambassador.

“[Chirac] took away a love for the physical beauty of the United States, a healthy respect for the American attitude toward civil liberties and, oddly, a taste for American cooking (he used to come to the embassy incognito in order to eat what he considered “real American food”),” Irwin wrote.

Words of little consolation to future US diplomats, who years later failed to convince Chirac, then France’s head of state, to join the US-led invasion of Iraq - a decision that chilled Franco-American ties for the next five years.

(Main picture by Jacques PAILLETTE, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license)

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