Pierre Mendes France as Prime Minister (President du Conseil as the post was called in the French IV Republic) put an end to the French segment of the war in Vietnam and began in 1954 with Tunisia the process that would lead to the independence of Tunisia, Morocco and finally Algeria. Mendes France was Prime Minister for only seven months (245 days) from mid-1954 to early 1955. Thus his memory is that of a "father" of the decolonization process and as one of the first European political figures who recognized the growing influence and importance of the political currents of Africa and Asia. After 1955, he never again held an important governmental post, but he was always considered as a model of what a political leader should be, a person who combined ideas, action and a longer-term vision.
By education and early political experience, he was an economist, and he always considered his actions as an economist as most important. His decolonization leadership was thrust upon him by events. He began life in a hurry and was always seen as brilliant by his professors. At 21 he had already written his thesis on monetary reform and two years later (1930) his first book on the need for international monetary stability was published. In 1932, nearly by the accident of the Radical Party needing a candidate in Normandy, he was elected to the Parliament – its youngest member. In 1933, he and his life-long friend George Boris wrote a book presenting the New Deal The Roosevelt Revolution. Mendes France who read English well – rare among French politicians at the time- read and admired John Maynard Keynes. Later in the war-time preparations of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Mendes France as the French representative came to know Lord Keynes personally and shared many of his positions.
In 1938 with the economic depression hitting France with full force, he was called to be under-secretary of the Treasury, a post where he was responsible for all monetary questions but administratively under the Ministry of the Economy. Thus his first government post was in the Popular Front (Left) government headed by Leon Blum, the leader of the Socialist Party. Both Blum and Mendes France were non-religious Jews, and for the right wing in France to have two Jews controlling financial policy was intolerable. Prior to the Second World War in France, anti-Jewish sentiments could be (and were) openly expressed. "Death to Blum" and "Death to Mendes" were cries expressed in the Parliament, and there was a strong and widely read anti-Jewish press which attacked Mendes France at every occasion. Blum, an older man, had grown used to such attacks and always said that he would be attacked by the Right even if he were not Jewish. For Mendes France, a much younger man, whose family had left Portugal to escape the Inquisition and settled in France in the 1600s, the attacks on his loyalty to the French Republic hurt him deeply.
The hurt was reinforced as the Second World War started. He had been warning of the dangers of Hitler for some time, and had supported the Republicans in the civil war against Franco in Spain. Mendes France was called to military service, which he could have refused being a member of Parliament. Nevertheless he joined the air force but deserted as the Germans conquered France and all the French military were held to stop combat. In 1941, Mendes France was tried in a court of the Vichy government for "military desertion" and was condemned to six years in prison. However, he spent only one day in prison after the trial and an appeal. He had sawed the bars of his prison window and escaped. He made his way to London where he was welcomed by Charles De Gaulle, leader of the Free French. Although De Gaulle and Mendes France had different political views and later would oppose each other, in the London of 1942, they worked together against the common enemy.
As the war progressed and as North Africa was liberated, De Gaulle set up a provisional government in Algiers and called upon Mendes France to be first responsible for finance and a short time later, with a wider mandate, Minister of the National Economy. It was during these months in Algiers and the first months of the transfer of the government to liberated France, that Mendes France developed his ideas on the need for planification of the economy. Mendes France was always critical of the Soviet approach to economic planning, but he recognized that a government can not do everything at he same time. "To govern is to choose" was a motto of Mendes France, later to be chosen as the title of a book of essays on the need for a plan.
However, planning for Mendes France in 1945 meant not giving into demands of a large number of people and political parties for a rapid increase in the standard of living. In 1945, the English government was able to continue food and fuel rationing well after the war with a policy of austerity in order to reinforce the currency. This was largely what Mendes France proposed, but the French who had been occupied by German troops had been promised that all would get better once the Germans left and wanted to see fast improvements.
De Gaulle was never interested in economics. His field was geopolitics, and he would not use his war-won fame to defend a policy of austerity. Thus in 1945 Mendes France resigned from De Gaulle’s government. De Gaulle sent Mendes France to the United States where he spent four years as the representative of France at the International Monetary Fund and then as the French representative to the UN’s Economic and Social Council. In Washington and at the UN, Mendes France met the representatives of the newly independent states of Asia, in particular India, Pakistan Burma, as well as representatives from China, then still in a civil war. He became increasingly aware of the role of Asia, and through his wife who came from an Egyptian Jewish family, his interest in the Middle East grew.
In 1950 he returned to France and in 1951 was re-elected to Parliament at a time when France was deeply involved in the war in Vietnam, led on the Vietnamese side, by Ho Chi Minh. Mendes France spoke out early for the need for negotiations and some sort of compromise solution, though no political figures yet spoke of independence.
The French governments of the IV Republic (1946 to 1959) were all coalition governments with representatives from numerous small parties since no one party had a majority. In fact, the governments were somewhat like the game of "musical chairs" with the same people sitting in different ministries. Mendes France was largely outside this game as there were older members of his own party who were chosen. Yet, having been a minister of finance and economy, he was always a potential leader. He had been asked to form a government in 1953 but could not put together a "team" of ministers to get a majority in the Parliament.
For Mendes France, a government should be based on ideas, on a broadly-accepted program, not on a coalition of persons each of whom represented a different bloc of voters. In 1954, his hour on the front of the stage began. In May the French troops located in the valley of Dien Bien Phu who had planned to draw the Vietnamese forces into a trap, were themselves caught and the living had to surrender. The emotional impact of the loss of Diem Bien Phu was great in France. Later in May started four-party negotiation in Geneva: France and the Vietminh as the active antagonists, China and the USSR as interested parties. The Indochina meeting had been one of the positive outcomes of the February 1954 Big Four (USA, USSR, UK, France) conference in Berlin. The USA had been invited to Geneva, but John Foster Dulles declined, fearing a "French sell out".
On the 18th of June 1954, Mendes France was accepted by the Parliament as Prime Minister with the pledge that he would go to Geneva himself to negotiate. In Geneva, an agreement had already been largely negotiated on dividing Vietnam, basically on lines that corresponded to the military positions with the possibility of the transfer of those populations who wished between north and south. While the 1954 agreement set the framework for what became the US war in Vietnam, at the time it was seen both in France and Vietnam as the start of peace and a big step in the decolonization process.
A couple of weeks later, Mendes France turned his attention to Tunisia, scene of growing political unrest. The leader of the independence party Habib Bourguiba was under house arrest in France, and tensions were building, with a strong influence of French settlers in Tunisia. Mendes France went to Tunisia and negotiated a far-reaching accord on internal autonomy, setting he stage for independence.
However, November 1, 1954 was the start of what became the 1955-1962 war of independence in Algeria. French opinion was deeply divided as were the French and Arab communities in Algeria. In 1955, the government led by Mendes France was defeated in Parliament on a vote concerning the Algerian conflict. He never again played an important role as an elected official. The Algerian war set the stage for the return to power in 1958 of Charles De Gaulle, and the start of the Vth Republic whose presidential form Mendes France always opposed. Mendes France believed in a Parliamentary form of government but one built on a political program and not shifting electoral alliances.
His physical health diminished after 1972, and his last years were largely devoted to writing and reflection on economic policies. However, with his contacts and reputation for honest thought in the Arab world and his contacts with members of the Israeli left, he was one of the early Track II facilitators, Palestinians and Israelis meeting in his apartment in Paris and his summer home in the south of France.
Pierre Mendes France was a rare combination of an intellectual, an economic and social planner, and a political activist. His efforts were a milestone on the road to decolonization.
(1) For those TF readers who do not recall the early days of the journal see Homer A. Jack
Homer’s Odyssey (Mecket, MA: One Peaceful World Press, 1996, 639pp.)
Rene Wadlow is the editor of www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO
Representative to the United Nations, Geneva