Resurrecting the Third Republic. Who was Jean Moulin? Will Self unravels the myths enshrouding the elusive hero of the French resistance

The death of Jean Moulin: biography of a ghost

Patrick Marnham <em>John Murray, 290pp, £20 </em>

A couple of years ago, I was commissioned by the ill-fated John Kennedy Jr to write a piece for his political magazine George on the enmity that exists between the French and the British. I tried to downplay this antipathy like the good little pro-European that I am, arguing that, while historically our nations may have been at one another's throats, in successive decades since the end of the Second World War we have seen the rotting away of whatever flesh remains on the skeletons in the attic of Anglo-French relations.

Nevertheless, if not exactly throwing myself into the research, I did, in a peculiar reversal of Des Esseinte's voyage in Joris Karl Huysman's A Rebours, take the Eurostar to Paris and, in a brasserie within pissing distance of the Gare du Nord, have lunch with Stephen Jessel, at that time the BBC's France correspondent. Jessel was dapper, emollient, engaged. We ate a decent 200 franc prix fixe lunch. While he discoursed on social mores, the corrupt practices required to obtain a Paris apartment, the clique of intellectuals, the claque of politicians, my head swam - it was all too Gallic for words. Within hours, I was heading back to Waterloo, convinced that I'd made a great escape.

In London, I spoke with Marcel Berlins, the journalist and legal commentator who, although raised in South Africa, is Provencal by birth. Berlins is the most peculiar of Anglo-French chimeras. He left Paris after les evenements - cultured by many layers of disaffection - and, during 30 years of trans-Manche exile, he has become an ambulatory oxymoron: a French cricketer. Berlins was forthright about Anglo-French relations: "They hate the British because they can't face up to how many of them were collaborators in the war. It's a thoroughly discreditable episode in French history, and it's still hugely present."

The piece never got written. Instead of a little light divertissement on Franglais and the Norman conquest, I found myself staring into the eye sockets of a severed, rotting horse's head, dragged up from the muddy waters of the recent past and entwined with fat, ugly eels of political reality. Not the kind of thing that plays in Peoria, where - as we all know - the destination "Paris" must needs be qualified with "France".

Patrick Marnham had no such qualms. His biography of Jean Moulin, the secularly sanctified hero of the French resistance, constitutes as contentious a piece of historical reconstruction, interpretation and speculation as any British Francophobe could wish for. But if you're predisposed to dislike the French - on the principle that they have none - then this book will wholly disabuse you of your prejudices; because the story Marnham uncovers is one of a superfluity of convictions, as the undiplomatic demarches of the Third Republic were carried on throughout the war by other means.

Marnham begins his tale by describing the Pantheon in Paris - where his subject's putative remains were eventually interred - as a symbol of the complex web of mythologising that has been woven around Moulin. The story of the Pantheon is itself the narrative of France's inability to come to terms with its religious schisms, of how a supposed national symbol becomes instead a cracked actor on the French political stage. And that is Moulin's biography, too, the very ghostliness of which is the way Charles de Gaulle and the French Communist Party (PCF) both claimed him as one of their own, for the same reason - yet with different motives.

For de Gaulle, it was essential that, in the wake of the German retreat, France should be portrayed as la France resistante, in order to avoid the humiliation of an imposed Allied military government. But, as Marnham makes only too clear, this myth allowed the PCF to impose its own historical falsification - that the communists had been the true party of resistance and, indeed, ultimately the only true resisters. Moulin, the former Third Republic prefect, briefly a servant of the Vichy regime and the man who surrendered Chartres to the Germans, contained within his being all of the contradictions of the interwar French governing classes.

Was he a crypto-communist, a "submarine" in the jargon? Someone who, from 1936 when he assisted (albeit unsuccessfully) in the secret government procurement of war material for the Spanish republicans, was covertly obeying the diktats of Moscow? Or was he ultimately a French patriot, who, while a man of the left, went to his death because he attempted to hamstring the influence of the PCF on the course of the resistance? Indeed, was Moulin a Gaullist fellow-traveller, acting as a double agent, who was betrayed to the Gestapo by his communist comrades?

In order to pick apart the gauzy filaments of half-truth, evasion and lies that enshroud Moulin's myth, Marnham attempts to show how Moulin's left-wing sympathies may have been the tip of an iceberg of communist commitment. Such a contention exposes Moulin - as it does many other French communists - to the charge of appeasing the Nazis until the severance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Jean Moulin was the son of a Provencal schoolmaster who rose through the Radical Party (centre-left republicans) to become a local notable. Although drafted, he didn't see active service in the first war; and while not a great academic, he rose, with the assistance of Masonic contacts, speedily through the ranks of administration to become, by 1925, the youngest sub-prefect in France. A semi-bohemian who dabbled in painting, Moulin exchanged his association with these conservatives for the patronage of a future Popular Front minister, Pierre Cot. Cot undoubtedly was a Comintern fellow-traveller, but while Moulin worked closely with him and had close links with actual Comintern agents, Marnham uncovers no firm evidence that he was one himself.

After the German invasion in 1940, Moulin, having successfully maintained his position despite the disgrace of Cot (who was tried for treason under the Vichy regime), found himself prefect for Chartres, in which capacity he formally surrendered the city to the Germans. Then, when he acted as a focus of local resistance, the Germans arrested him and Moulin slit his own throat rather than give way under interrogation (his life was only saved by the arrival of a guard). Over the next two and a half years, Moulin led a double life, living in the Vichy zone as a retired prefect, while travelling to the occupied zone to foment resistance. He escaped to London to forge links with de Gaulle's Free French, and returned as his agent to try to connect all the disparate factions of the resistance. In June 1943, Moulin was arrested in Lyon by Klaus Barbie and then died under torture by the Gestapo, having refused to talk.

Marnham's book is in part a detective story: who exactly betrayed the meeting at which Moulin and other members of the CNR (Conseil National de la Resistance, the umbrella through which he enlisted the national resistance in the Gaullist movement) were arrested? But this is only a cover for Marnham's wider purpose, which is to disinter the corpse of the Third Republic, and to demonstrate how its incompatible limbs went on trying to amputate each other; not only throughout the war, but after it, and, indeed, right up until the fall of the Soviet empire put an end to the nematode presence of the communists in the French body politic.

Marnham's reconstructions of "what actually happened" may seem contrived (and, to his credit, this is not something he denies), but his demonstrations of how the players thought and behaved carry total conviction. You may read The death of Jean Moulin looking for reasons for Anglo-French enmity, but you won't find them; instead, you'll discover a pathetic gratitude that you live in a country which wasn't prey to such systemic polarities - polarities that were exacerbated by occupation to such a degree that it became essential for them to be hidden with the trompe l'oeil of myth if there were to be any possibility of postwar reconciliation.

As Marnham makes clear, the full truth about Moulin's death will not emerge for another 90 years, until all the documents relating to the case are released under the French government's own statutes of limitation. Until then, we'd do well to tread softly around the vexed question of the war, and allow them to win at football with good grace.