François Mitterrand: The great deceiver

François Mitterrand’s career was an extraordinary catalogue of political switches and personal cover-ups – but he remains arguably the most successful left-wing leader that western Europe has ever seen.

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936)

Most political observers can trot out Keynes’s remark but it does not follow that political leaders are mere ventriloquists. Even the most unintellectual and anti-intellectual have to decide to which academic scribbler or scribblers they are going to enslave themselves. And how politicians put different ideas together makes a critical difference to the politics they pursue. Just compare varieties of liberalism and conservatism – and communism and fascism – under different leaders.

Moreover, many of the most successful political leaders are not “exempt from any intellectual influence”; on the contrary, for some, intellectualism is a central part of their political personality and appeal. As the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland once wrote, “People don’t believe in ideas: they believe in people who believe in ideas.”

All of this is prompted by grappling with the career of François Mitterrand, courtesy of Mitterrand: a Study in Ambiguity (Bodley Head, £30), an excellent new book by the former BBC Paris correspondent Philip Short. His previous subjects as a biographer were Pol Pot and Mao Zedong. An odd trio but, as with the other two, Short brings to the former French president great insight without undue sympathy, qualities admired by Mitterrand, who said the most essential attribute in politics is “indifference”.

The reason for grappling with Mitterrand is simple enough: he is the most successful left-wing leader of any of the three leading western European countries (France, Britain and Germany), measured by longevity in power and arguably also by electoral dominance. A front-rank politician by the age of 30 in 1946 and a senior minister in successive governments of the Fourth Republic while in his thirties, he went on to lead today’s Socialist Party in 1971, then to win two presidential elections (in 1981 and 1988) and two parliamentary elections. Having condemned Charles de Gaulle’s strong Fifth Republic presidency as “a permanent coup d’état” when the general assumed power in the late 1950s, he occupied the post in full plenitude for 14 years (1981-95), ruling for longer than de Gaulle – longer indeed than any leader of France since Napoleon III – in a political career spanning half a century.

However, the explanation for Mitterrand’s success is anything but simple; also complex are the lessons for today’s left as it struggles to win and hold power across Europe, not least in France, where François Hollande evinces little of the mastery of Tonton (“Uncle”).

Short’s biography is subtitled A Study in Ambiguity but it could equally be described as “a study in deception”, because there was nothing ambiguous about the massive falsehoods and carefully constructed but entirely bogus images that litter every part of Mitterrand’s career. Short begins the biography with an electric account of the “observatory affair” of 1959, when Mitterrand faked an assassination attempt on himself as a ploy to regain the political initiative the year after de Gaulle buried the Fourth Republic and most of its political inmates. The fake was exposed and it is extraordinary that he ever recovered.

Yet the greatest deceptions were still to come. Throughout his presidency, he lied (and ordered his doctors to lie) about his health. Diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer within months of taking power in 1981 and expected to live for only three more years, he told his urologist: “It’s a state secret; you are bound by this secret.” When the cancer went into remission, he not only stood for re-election while maintaining the secret but struggled on for the full seven years although the cancer returned and, by the end, became undeniable.

His personal life was similarly full of falsehood. While his wife, Danielle, and their two sons were his public family, they coexisted with a secret second family of his mistress (who was 27 years younger than him) and their daughter, with Mitterrand shuttling between the two in Paris and the country, again unknown to the public until the end of his presidency. His daughter, Mazarine, was named after Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s wily and secretive first minister, whose precepts for the politician were taken deeply to heart by her father: “Be sparing with your gestures, walk with measured steps . . . Simulate, dissimulate, trust nobody.”

It is no surprise that it is hard to pin down what Mitterrand believed. Partly this is because his ideas changed so much and so often. Starting out as an official of the Vichy regime and an admirer of Philippe Pétain, he was elected in the Fourth Republic for a shifting array of parties of the centre right. As a minister in the mid-1950s, he was a voice not only of conservatism but of outright reaction and repression in respect of Algeria and the French colonies.

Throughout the 1960s, his big idea was anti-Gaullism. He championed liberalism in the face of overweening personal and presidential power. Socialism entered his vocabulary only as he sought a viable anti- and post- Gaullist political grouping, which, as a result of his artful machinations, came together in the Socialist Party in 1971.

Mitterrand then rose to power on the back of an alliance with the still-strong Communists. He fashioned this as the tribune of a leftism that included wholesale nationalisation, a war on the rich and a huge expansion of welfare spending without any regard for conventional economics, which he professed to despise.

This led to the “common programme”, which was put into action in 1981. Elected on the rhetoric of a “complete rupture” with capitalism and the slogan “Change life”, Mitterrand appointed Communist ministers to a pan-left coalition that embarked on the most radical and frenetic programme of nationalisation, state spending and cultural reform attempted by any western European government since the early postwar years.

Barely a year later, Mitterrand put most of this into rapid reverse. With the franc collapsing and the financial markets in revolt, economic orthodoxy returned, state spending was slashed and the Communists were ejected. Nationalisation was rolled back after the right won the parliamentary elections of 1986. Scotching the notion that he should resign in the face of this debacle, Mitterrand instead fashioned a new concept of “cohabitation” between a president of the left and a government of the right. He proceeded to outwit the then prime minister, Jacques Chirac, fighting him on the slogan of “Opening to the centre” in the 1988 presidential and parliamentary elections, while Chirac scrapped with Le Pen and the National Front – whose potency was largely a creation of Mitterrand’s manoeuvre to change the electoral system to proportional representation before the 1986 elections, specifically to strengthen the far right in relation to the centre right.

Re-elected as a centrist, Mitterrand appointed a government under the centrist social democrat Michel Rocard, including a large number of non-aligned ministers and even a handful of centre-right former ministers, before succumbing to another “cohabitation”, this time under Edouard Balladur (who had been the finance minister in the first “cohabitation”), which saw out his final two years of office.

“It was not in my interests to oppose the trend of public opinion,” said Mitterrand, abdicating any role in leading opinion as he drifted, with increasing physical and political infirmity and growing controversy – not least about his Vichy past, coming fully into the open for the first time – to the end of his second term.

Shortly before his replacement as prime minister in 1991, Rocard described his rival and nemesis as “cynicism in its purest sense”. During his 14 years in the Élysée, Mitterrand got through seven prime ministers, each the product of labyrinthine political calculations, the subtlety of which was often lost on the participants.

In all these manoeuvres, over five decades, ideology and political language were as often as not the servants of short-term political advantage. Simulate, dissimulate. Once he became a “socialist” after 1970, for instance, varieties of leftism were deployed to outwit party rivals on all sides and to make possible (and later to destroy) the alliance with the Communists.

The ceaseless shifting of Mitterrand’s ideas is a dominant theme of Short’s biography. Having sought out the essence of Mitterrand’s credo as a lesson for left-wing rejuvenation, I am instead bewildered by the endlessly turning kaleidoscope. I cannot think of a modern democratic leader who has made so successful a career trading rival ideas and policies to suit immediate political convenience. In the British context, over the course of his career, he was Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Enoch Powell, all rolled into one.

All of this ideological somersaulting was donewith immense intellectual engagement and fine calibration. In Mitterrand, the academic scribbler was more the servant of the practical politician than vice versa. A big part of “brand Mitterrand” was an ostentatious intellectualism giving apparent depth and sincerity to whichever creed he was peddling at any given time, however great the difference with the last one.

Mitterrand said he needed to read for two hours or more a day “to oxygenate the brain”. Many of his major shifts in ideas were accompanied by a book or pamphlet by the maestro – including his remarkable 47-page “Letter to all the French”, written as a manifesto for his “opening to the centre” for his 1988 re-election, advertised with little modesty as covering “all the big subjects which are worth discussing and mulling over between French men and women”. (“The night before it was to be published [he] stayed up till 3am at the printing press correcting the proofs, like a neophyte brooding over a first novel” – a brilliant detail, as are Short’s revelations that during tedious cabinet presentations, Mitterrand annotated antiquarian book catalogues and on presidential flights would sometimes ask the pilot to circle before landing so he could finish a chapter.)

Is Mitterrand’s legacy an object lesson in intellectual manoeuvring, with no inner core, as the method of a politician supreme? It is more than that in four respects. First, however labyrinthine his methods, there is a substantial progressive legacy from which the French left takes inspiration, including the abolition of the death penalty, significantly raising the minimum wage, equal rights for women and minorities, decentralisation and numerous beneficial grands projets.

Second, the 1982-83 reversal had the effect of demonstrating to the European left that “socialism in one country” didn’t work; pragmatic social democracy is the successful face of “Mitterrandism”.

There wasn’t the clear break with the doctrinaire past of the German SPD in the late 1950s and the British Labour Party in the mid-1990s, which is part of François Hollande’s problem as he tries to play the centre and an unreconstructed left together. Yet the post-Mitterrand French Socialist Party is as broad a church as its British and German counterparts and knows how to govern from the centre.

Third, there was a Mitterrand core: peace with Germany and projects to entrench European peace and security, from the European Communities in the 1950s to the single currency in the 1990s. A survivor of European war and its horrors – including time as a prisoner of war – Mitterrand never allowed the central pillars of a pro-German and pro-US foreign policy to become part of the game of “simulate, dissimulate”. Ironically, it was de Gaulle who played dangerously in this arena.

With Communists in his government and the left triumphant, Mitterrand’s first move in 1981 was to assure Ronald Reagan in unequivocal words and actions that France was a reliable ally. He did the same with Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands war a year later and also with Helmut Kohl, after an initial wobble, on German reunification. It was ambiguity at home but clarity abroad – and clarity in the cause of European peace and stability. Hence the most enduring image of Mitterrand: hand in hand with Helmut Kohl before two huge wreaths at Verdun in 1984 at a ceremony to seal Franco-German reconciliation.

Fourth, throughout his life and career, Mitterrand had a patrician sympathy with the underdog. Although he was the son of a stationmaster who inherited a family vinegar business, he served in the ranks in the war, having failed the competition for a commission, and developed a contempt for hierarchy and authority (besides his own) and a social sympathy for the less fortunate that was genuine and lasting. His political initiation – and his early political power base – was in organisations for returning prisoners of war. This need not have led him to the socialist left but it helped him accomplish the transition with an authenticity born to some degree from experience.

No feats of intellectual and political gymnastics can substitute or detract from personal experience. In Mitterrand’s case, it was his intimate experience of a France prostrate, impoverished and divided, that dominated his twenties and shaped him fundamentally.

Philip Short suggests another attribute of Mitterrand the leader: natural authority rooted in an “inner solitude” – “a part of [his] being that was locked, inaccessible to others, which is one of the characteristics of uncommon leaders everywhere” – and which came in part from a long period in the political wilderness (the 23 years from 1958 to 1981). He draws the parallel with de Gaulle in the wilderness in the 1950s; Churchill in the 1930s also comes to mind.

Perhaps. Yet François Mitterrand showed himself to be a notable leader as a prisoner of war and an organiser of fellow returnees long before his wilderness years. Maybe it owed more to Cardinal Mazarin, whose further advice for politicians was to “maintain a posture at all times which is full of dignity . . . Each day spend a moment studying how you should respond to the events which might befall you.”

In the last months of his life, his doctor told him he was a mixture of Machiavelli, Don Corleone, Casanova and the Little Prince. When Mitterrand enquired, “In what proportions?” the physician replied, “That depends on which day.”

François Mitterand, then president of France, sits for a sculptor in the banquet hall of the Palais de l'Élysée in October 1983. Photo: ©Guy le Querrec/Magnum Photos
JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge