Collapse of socialist dream

Robert Guédiguian (director) The last Mitterrand Cambridge film festival, Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge, July 7-8; general release, July 29

The history of the left is littered with so-called 'socialist' leaders who have disappointed and betrayed their supporters. From Kier Hardie and Ken Livingstone through to Robert Mugabe and Joseph Stalin, the left constantly has to grapple with explaining the errors, compromises and sell-outs of left politicians. So how do we explain their transformations from sometimes inspiring left leaders to wayward and authoritarian rulers? Unfortunately, the answer will not be found in Robert Guédiguian's new docu-drama, The last Mitterrand, which deals with that peculiarly French reformist figure Franà§ois Mitterrand, who became the Fifth Republic's first Socialist Party prime minister and dashed the hopes of millions of leftists by effectively joining rather than challenging the establishment. Guédiguian, long-time member of the French Communist Party, normally makes films about working class life, such as Marius and Jeanette (1996). Now he has turned his attention to an appraisal of Mitterrand (Michel Bouquet) in a film which attempts to understand what he meant both for France and the left. However, like so many others, Guédiguian cannot explain him. According to the film publicity, he has said: "Mitterrand embodied the possibility of socialism in France at the very time when socialism was collapsing around the world ... Mitterrand made the socialist dream credible for a decade". In this sense, Mitterrand is seen by Guédiguian as the unifier of the French left, as the Socialist Party leader ensured his organisation was a respectable party of government. But at the same time the director is aware of the disappointment of Mitterrand's legacy and, more centrally, with the persistent uncertainties about his past during the Vichy wartime government. It is this latter issue that is Guédiguian's central focus, rather than Mitterrand's record in office. In this fictionalised film, a young journalist, Antoine Moreau (Jalil Lespert), has been invited to converse with the dying president over his last 15 months of life, in order to produce a book. Moreau has a nagging need to deal with Mitterrand's role during the resistance and the rumours about his collaboration with the occupation regime. This approach never really goes anywhere, and Guédiguian/Moureau might have been better to have examined the equally significant issue of Mitterrand's anti-working class policies enacted while in power for 14 years. For, rather than simply being a misguided socialist politician, Mitterrand was a defender of the whole system. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Mitterrand and the Socialist Party were set on a course of managing capitalism, which ultimately means carrying out the necessary attacks on working people's conditions. This is, after all, what characterises reformism, and explains how leaders such as Mitterrand are forced to abandon their apparent radicalism and preserve the status quo. There certainly was a sense in which Mitterrand was once seen as some kind of radical. After all, before coming to power in 1981, he promised "a break with capitalism", declaring that "big business, mastery of the levers of economic and political command, remains enemy number one, with which there can be no possible compromise". He also warned of the corrupting power of "money that rots the very conscience of the people". Once in power, however, Mitterrand carried out attacks on the working class in the interests of big business, austerity and financial orthodoxy. Financial corruption was an enduring theme of his term of office. President Mitterrand also found it very useful to make use of the secret services for political and personal reasons, and to generally continue the authoritarian and monarchic style of presidency in France. In fact Mitterrand's presidency is a huge story and one which led to significant changes for French politics and society. But little of this is seen in the film. The Mitterrand character says that he sees himself as being in favour of a "socialist presidency" rather than a "socialist programme". And in the end, although Mitterrand might be seen to have betrayed his supporters, it is obvious that he actually stayed true to the ideas of the Socialist Party, but took those ideas to their ultimate conclusion of maintaining and updating capitalism in France. Guédiguian has previously expressed disappointment in Mitterrand's deradicalisation, but more recently in an interview he said: "Now I think - I'm not sure - that he had any other choice." Despite its failings, The last Mitterrand is worth seeing. Using this fictional route is certainly an intriguing way of telling a political story. Mitterrand's musings on France and politics are also rather interesting. He proclaims himself to be "the last of the great French presidents" and insists that "only accountants will come after me". But the film is no hagiography. Even one of Moreau's associates declares: "If he's a socialist, then I'm the pope." Although The last Mitterrand is a political film made by a radical, ultimately it is without much in the way of radical politics. Guédiguian says that to "raise the question again today of an alternative to globalised capitalism through an historical character seems to me perfectly in keeping with the leftist political commitment that has informed my work until now: that is, using the cinema to deal with the problems of our time". However, this film does nothing of the sort l Bryce Edwards