Who was Pierre Mendès France?

A figure of the French left, Pierre Mendès France marked the history of the Fourth Republic. Almost 40 years after his death, he is still considered a model of exemplarity and it is not uncommon that he is still cited today as an example or inspiration by political figures.

On January 11, 1907, Pierre Mendès France was born in Paris. He passed his baccalaureate at the age of 15 and began studying law. During his studies, he joined the Ligue d’action Universitaire républicaine et socialist (or LAURS) founded by Paul Ostaya, which he headed from 1927.

The following year, at the age of 21, Pierre Mendès France became the youngest lawyer in France. During a meeting of the radical party, he was seduced by the speech of Edouard Herriot, the leader of the party. His involvement in politics would continue to grow in the following years, but before this commitment became a life-long one, he settled in 1929 as a lawyer in Louviers, in the Eure region.

Beginnings in politics: from deputy to resistance fighter

Pierre Mendès France was elected deputy for the Eure in 1932, the youngest in France, before becoming mayor of Louviers three years later. His first economic speech in the Chamber of Deputies aroused the admiration of Léon Blum and in 1938 he became the youngest under-secretary of state for the Treasury in the Blum government of the Popular Front. The two men were close, but Mendès France did not hesitate to criticize Léon Blum for his opposition to the Spanish Republic. Mobilized as an officer in the Middle East when the Second World War broke out, Pierre Mendès France demanded to be sent to the front, even though his mandate as a deputy guaranteed him a risk-free assignment.

A fierce opponent of Marshal Pétain and the Vichy regime, he was arrested on August 31, 1940, in Morocco, which he had won with other members of the government, and sentenced to 6 years in prison after being charged with absconding.

He managed to escape from the Clermont-Ferrand prison where he was incarcerated and went underground before going to London where he joined the Free French Air Force and became involved with General de Gaulle. In 1944, he was appointed Minister of National Economy in De Gaulle’s GPRF (Provisional Government of the French Republic) but resigned less than a year later following a disagreement with the Minister of Finance, René Pleven. Mendès France advocated real economic austerity and radical measures. That same year he participated in the founding of the International Bank for Reconstruction and the International Monetary Fund at Bretton Woods.

Pierre Mendès France and Algeria

After the war, Pierre Mendès France, once again a member of parliament for the Eure region and mayor of Louviers, virulently opposed the war in Indochina, denouncing both its cost and its political incoherence. He became President of the Council after the fall of Dien Bien Phu on June 17, 1954, and was called to Matignon by President René Coty. He signed the Geneva Accords on July 20, thus signifying the departure of the French army from Indochina. Although his time at the head of the government was short-lived, lasting only seven months, Mendès France nevertheless left an indelible mark on the Fourth Republic, committing himself in particular to colonial issues in North Africa. On July 31, with the Carthage speech, internal autonomy was granted to the people of Tunisia, opening the way to the country’s independence.

On the question of Algeria, he is however inflexible and denounces the uprisings that agitate the country. “Algeria is France, not a foreign country … We do not compromise when it comes to defending the internal peace of the nation, the unity, and integrity of the Republic,” he said. Even if his speech evolved, Mendès France then insisted on the need for a “generous cooperation that the metropolis must create for a better life in Algeria”, the Algerian question ended up causing the fall of his government on February 5, 1955.

Pierre Mendès France, fervent supporter of François Mitterand

Opposed to the Treaty of Rome which established the European Economic Community, Mendès France also voted against the return to power of General de Gaulle. He lost his seat as a deputy in 1958 and turned his back on his mandates as mayor and general councilor. Still very committed to the left, he eventually broke with the Radical Party and moved closer to the Socialists. His commitment against the extreme right did not weaken, he was one of the only ones in 1936 to oppose the holding of the Olympic Games in Berlin, and he was one of the favorite targets of anti-Semites because of his position on decolonization and his Jewish ancestry.

In 1964, Pierre Mendès France supported François Mitterrand in the presidential elections. Although the politician failed against General de Gaulle, who finally resigned in 1969, Mendès France did not stop carrying the socialist doctrine in France and abroad. From the 1970s onwards, he devoted his time to the defense of peace in the Middle East. In 1981, a year before his death, he had the joy of witnessing the triumph of François Mitterrand who became President of the Republic against Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. October 18, 1982, was the date of his death in the city of Paris.