mendès france

Pierre Mendès France

[men-dis-frans, -frahns; Fr. mahn-des-frahns]

Pierre Mendès France (11 January 1907 - 18 October 1982), French politician, was born in Paris, into a family of "mixed" Portuguese - Sephardic (Mendes de França) and Ashkenazi Jewish origin.

Third Republic and World War II

He was educated at the University of Paris, graduating with a doctorate in law and becoming the youngest member of the Paris Bar association 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 département; he was the Assembly's youngest member. His ability was recognized 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 to Nazi Germany, he was arrested by the Vichy government authorities and sentenced to six years' imprisonment on a fallacious charge of desertion, but on 21 June 1941, 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, when he 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. Nonetheless, de Gaulle valued Mendès France's abilities, and appointed him as a director of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and as French representative in the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

Fourth Republic

In 1947, when normal French politics resumed under the Fourth Republic, Mendès France was re-elected to the National Assembly. He first tried to form a government in June 1953, but was unable to gain the numbers in the Assembly. From 1950 he had been a consistent opponent of French colonialism, and, by 1954, France was becoming hopelessly embroiled in major colonial conflicts: the First Indochina War and the Algerian War of Independence. When French forces were defeated by the Vietnamese Communists at Dien Bien Phu in June 1954, the government of Joseph Laniel resigned, and Mendès France formed a government. Among his ministers was the young François Mitterrand.

Mendès France immediately negotiated an armistice with Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Communist leader. There was, he said, no choice but total withdrawal from Indochina, and the Assembly supported him by 471 votes to 14. Nevertheless, nationalist opinion was shocked, and Roman Catholic opinion opposed abandoning the Vietnamese believers 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 the independence of that colony 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 Pied-noirs there meant that there could be no easy way of out that situation. The future mercenary Bob Denard was convicted in 1954 to fourteen years of jail for an assassination attempt against him .

Mendès France hoped that the Radical Party would become the party of modernisation 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 Germany's participation.

His cabinet fell in February 1955. 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. His split over Algeria with Edgar Faure, leader of the conservative wing of the Radical Party, led to Mendès France resigning as party leader in 1957.

Fifth Republic

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 and the creation of a Fifth Republic. He led the Union of Democratic Forces, an anti-Gaullist group, but, in 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 Unified Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste Unifié or 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. In accordance with the PSU, Mendès France expressed sympathy for the sentiments and actions of the student rioters during the "events" (les évènements) of May 1968, a position unusual for a politician of his age and status. In an unorthodox move, de Gaulle's socialist opponent, Gaston Defferre, had designated him Prime Minister-elect prior to the election; but to no avail for either. When Mitterrand formed a new Socialist Party in 1971, Mendès France supported him, but did not attempt another political come-back.

Shortly before Mendès France died in 1982, he witnessed the coming to office of Socialist President François Mitterrand.

Mendès France's first Ministry, 19 June 1954 - 20 January 1955


  • 14 August 1954 - Emmanuel Temple succeeds Koenig as Minister of National Defense and Armed Forces. Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury succeeds Chaban-Delmas as interim Minister of Public Works, Transport, and Tourism. Eugène Claudius-Petit succeeds Lemaire as interim Minister of Reconstruction and Housing.
  • 3 September 1954 - Jean Masson succeeds Temple as Minister of Veterans and War Victims. Jean-Michel Guérin de Beaumont succeeds Hugues as Minister of Justice. Henri Ulver succeeds Bourgès-Maunoury as Minister of Commerce and Industry. Jacques Chaban-Delmas succeeds Bourgès-Maunoury as Minister of Public Works, Transport, and Tourism and Claudius-Petit as Minister of Reconstruction and Housing. Louis Aujoulat succeeds Claudius-Petit as Minister of Labour and Social Security. André Monteil succeeds Aujoulat as Minister of Public Health and Population.
  • 12 November 1954 - Maurice Lemaire succeeds Chaban-Delmas as Minister of Reconstruction and Housing.

Mendès France's second Ministry, 20 January 1955 - 23 February 1955


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