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Pierre Mendès France
Pierre Mendès France in 1968
|93rd Prime Minister of France|
18 June 1954 – 23 February 1955
|Preceded by||Joseph Laniel|
|Succeeded by||Edgar Faure|
|Born||11 January 1907|
|Died||18 October 1982 (aged 75)|
|Alma mater||University of Paris|
Pierre Isaac Isidore Mendès France (French: [pjɛʁ mɑ̃dɛs fʁɑ̃s]; 11 January 1907 – 18 October 1982), known as PMF, was a French politician who served as President of the Council of Ministers (equivalent in the French Fourth Republic to Prime Minister) for eight months from 1954 to 1955. He represented the Radical Party, and his government had the support of the Communist party. His main priority was ending the war in Indochina, which had already cost 92,000 dead, 114,000 wounded and 28,000 captured on the French side. Public opinion polls showed that in February 1954, only 7% of the French people wanted to continue the fight to regain Indochina out of the hands of the Communists, led by Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh movement. At the Geneva Conference of 1954 he negotiated a deal that gave the Viet Minh control of Vietnam north of the seventeenth parallel, and allowed him to pull out all French forces. The United States then provided large-scale financial, military and economic support to South Vietnam.
Mendès France was descended from a Portuguese Jewish family that settled in France in the 16th century. 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 SFIO, often called the Socialist Party). He married Lili Cicurel, the niece of Salvator Cicurel.
In 1932 Mendès France was elected to the French Parliament as a député 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 false 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.
Mendès France soon fell out with the Finance Minister, René Pleven. Mendès France supported 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 to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
In 1947, after democratic 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 with Communist Party support.
Mendès France immediately negotiated an agreement 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.[note 1] 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 presence of a million Pied-noirs there left the colonial power no easy way to extricate itself from that situation. The future mercenary Bob Denard was convicted in 1954 and sentenced to fourteen months in prison for an assassination attempt against Mendès France.
Mendès France hoped that the Radical Party would become the party of modernization and renewal in French politics, replacing the SFIO. 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.
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. He made an unsuccessful bid to regain his seat in the National Assembly representing Eure in the 1962 election.
In 1967 he returned to the Assembly as a PSU member for the Isère, but again lost his seat in the 1968 landslide election victory of the Gaullist party UDR. Mendès France and the PSU 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. One year later, Pompidou's socialist opponent in the presidential election of 1969, Gaston Defferre of the SFIO, designated him his preferred Prime Minister prior to the election. The two campaigned together in what was the first – and so far only – dual "ticket" in a French presidential election. Defferre gained only 5% of the vote and was eliminated in the election's first round. When François Mitterrand formed a new Socialist Party in 1971, Mendès France supported him, but did not attempt another political comeback. He lived long enough to see Mitterrand elected President.
National Assembly of France
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Maurice Couve de Murville
| Free French Commissioner for Finance
| Minister of National Economy
| Prime Minister of France
| Minister of Foreign Affairs
| Minister of State