Pierre Mendes-France, 75, the premier of France who ended the French war in Indochina in 1954 and began dismantling his country's North African empire by granting autonomy to Tunisia, died yesterday at his home in Paris. The cause of death was not reported.
Although he spent only seven months and seven days at the head of the French government, Mr. Mendes-France succeeded in giving the moribund Fourth Republic a brief sense of being in control of affairs. In addition to winning support for his Indochinese and Tunisian initiatives, he persuaded the French to allow the rearming of West Germany.
Mr. Mendes-France took office in June 1954. A month earlier, Dien Bien Phu, the French fortress in what was to become North Vietnam, had fallen with the loss of 15,000 French dead. The new premier pledged to end the fighting within 30 days or resign. He immediately went to Geneva, where he met with Chou En-lai, the premier and foreign minister of Mainland China. Within several days he met again in Geneva with representatives of Britain, the United States and other powers.
An agreement was reached calling for the partition of Vietnam pending elections. Provisions of the pact were to be supervised by observers from Canada, India and Poland.
When he presented the plan to the National Assembly, Mr. Mendes-France said, "I have no illusions . . . as to the contents of the agreements. Their text is sometimes cruel . . . but the best we could hope for under the circumstances."
The agreement was approved 462 to 13.
Ten days later, Mr. Mendes-France flew to Tunis for secret negotiations that ended months of anti-French Arab guerilla warfare. Tunisia received internal autonomy and eventual independence. France kept temporary control of foreign affairs and defense matters.
Mr. Mendes-France's colonial policies were based on the conviction that, in order to regain her strength and her rightful place in the world, France must rid herself of her liabilities. The colonial wars, with their drain on the French economy and on the social fabric of France, must be stopped, he said. As he tried to convert these views into action, support fell away.
In 1955, his government fell on a vote of no confidence in the Chamber of Deputies concerning his policies in French North Africa. When he tried to make a final speech in the chamber he was shouted down with cries of "bastard" and "dirty Jew."
This was the price he paid for daring to take the first steps where other polticians feared to do so. It remained for Gen. Charles de Gaulle to complete the liquidation of the empire and to reap the benefits that flowed from this. Mr. Mendes-France was a colleague of de Gaulle during the war and in the years immediately following it. But he was a steadfast opponent of his former chief when de Gaulle became a high-handed and autocratic president of the republic.
For himself, Mr. Mendes-France is derided to this day by some as the Frenchman who chose to drink milk rather than wine. In fact, his three-fold purpose in making this remarkable gesture was to combat alcoholism, increase production of dairy products and persuade Frenchmen to abandon the lackadaisical habit of the two-hour lunch.
He also is remembered as an egalitarian by conviction and a classically trained, pragmatic and successful economist and lawyer. His opposition to policies of repression in Algeria during the revolution there led to his estrangement from the mainstream of French politics and precluded his ever again holding high office. From 1958 until 1967, he was not even a member of the National Assembly. But his views became the later policies of France.
Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, Mr. Mendes-Frances played a role in the reorganization of the French Socialist Party under the leadership of Francois Mitterand, now the president of France. Mitterand was minister of the interior in the Mendes-France government in 1954.
Although the two men disagreed about some party matters, their aims remained similar. A member of the Radical Socialist Party, Mr. Mendes-France ran for vice president on the ticket headed by Gaston Deferre in 1969 against President Georges Pompidou. In 1971, when Mitterand succeeded in gaining control of the Socialists, Mr. Mendes-France was opposed to him.
But when Mitterand took office last year, his old mentor and rival was present. The new president kissed him warmly on both cheeks and said:
"If I am here today, it is thanks to you. It is the justification for so many years of effort that you were the one to begin."
Throughout his life, Mr. Mendes-France was a leading figure in the French Jewish community. After 1960, he emerged as a leading spokesman for an accomodation between Israel and the Arab world. He persuaded other Jewish leaders that Israel could be secure even in the presence of an independent Palestine. He frequently spoke to representatives of Israel and the Arab countries. Among his admirers was Shimon Peres, the chief of the Israeli Labor Party.
The last political act of Mr. Mendes-France was to support France's condemnation of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon last June.
Pierre Mendes-France was born in Paris on Jan. 11, 1907. He was descended from a Sephardic Jewish family that had moved to France from Portugal and Spain in the 16th century. His father was a prosperous clothes designer and dealer in cloth.
Mr. Mendes-France graduated from the Faculty of Law and the School of Political Science of the University of Paris at the age of 18, the first in a class of 800 students. He was admitted to the bar at 21, becoming the youngest lawyer in France. He had joined the Radical Socialist Party at the age of 16 and in 1932 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies at the age of 25, becoming the youngest member of that body.
Six years later, he became under secretary of the Treasury in the Second Popular Front government of Leon Blum. At the beginning of World War II in September 1939, he left the government to be a flyer in the French Air Force. He was taken prisoner but escaped to join the Free French. He flew bombing raids over Germany from England and then joined de Gaulle in North Africa.
He was named minister of national economy in de Gaulle's provisional government after the liberation of Paris. He resigned because of lack of support for his program of economic austerity, which would have closed down the black market and limited circulation of paper money.
His first wife, the former Lily Cicurel, by whom he had two sons, died in 1967. In 1971, he married the former Marie-Claire Cremieux.