If American readers know one thing about François Mitterrand, it is that both his wife and his mistress attended his public funeral in 1996. In life, however, Mitterand was an aloof and sometimes inscrutable figure: “The Sphinx” was his nickname; one of his comrades in a German prisoner-of-war camp described him as “very cold, very distant”; and he is known to have spoken only four English words in public — “Happy birthday, Miss Liberty” — at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Statue of Liberty.

Yet Philip Short, a British journalist and biographer of Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, manages to reveal all the contradictions and conflicts behind Mitterrand’s cool and calculating exterior in his richly detailed and wholly compelling biography, “A Taste for Intrigue.” As Short puts it, quoting Mitterrand’s physician, he was “a mixture of ‘Machiavelli, Don Corleone, Casanova and the Little Prince.’ ”

To his first amour, for example, Mitterrand sent some 2,000 love letters over a period of 31 / 2 years. While a prisoner of war during World War II, he mastered the art of counterfeiting official documents, using an artfully carved potato to affix the official-looking seals, and he later showed himself skilled in what Short calls the “tradecraft of clandestinity,” disguising himself as an Argentine tango dancer or a gallery owner and carrying half of a torn five-franc note as a recognition signal. When he discovered that his wife, too, had taken a lover, he shrugged. “I do not see how I can forbid to my wife,” he said at the time, “what I allow to myself.”

Mitterrand was born in 1916, a son of a stationmaster in a small town north of Bordeaux. His upbringing and education in a Catholic, middle-class family brought him into contact with the rightist and anti-Semitic circles of French politics in the 1930s, but he was politically indifferent: “Words ending in -ism solve nothing,” young Mitterrand insisted. Although he is remembered and celebrated as the socialist who served as president of France, he only belatedly joined the party. “The problem with François,” his brother Jacques said, “was that he was always opposing something.”

The most troubling paradox in Mitterrand’s complicated life emerged when he succeeded in escaping from the POW camp in 1941 and accepted a position with the collaborationist Vichy regime in the then-unoccupied portion of France. He later insisted that it was only a cover for his resistance activities: “an official career, surrounded by rightwing friends,” as Short describes it, and “an unofficial and increasingly clandestine existence, working with other ex-prisoners against the Germans and their French allies.” Even so, Mitterrand himself was plagued with doubt: “If only I had a firm belief in something, nothing would be a sacrifice for me,” he wrote. “But what can I do without solid ground beneath my feet before I jump?” Not until 1943 did Mitterrand make a leap of faith into the resistance — and with fateful results.

‘A Taste for Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of François Mitterrand’ by Philip Short (Macmillan)

Short navigates expertly through the treacherous channels of French politics, which were much in evidence inside the resistance but even more consequential in the years that followed the liberation. Indeed, “A Taste for Intrigue” can be approached as a closely narrated political history that covers more than half a century, and it is crowded with the people and the parties that contested with one another for power, not only in France but also in Europe, Russia, the United States, Africa and the Middle East. In that sense, Short sometimes uses Mitterrand as the compass rose on a detailed map of global geopolitics. The point is made when Short describes the calls Mitterrand took during his final illness: “Helmut Kohl telephoned him regularly,” Short writes, “though not as often as Arafat.”

The political biography begins when Mitterrand was appointed to a post in Charles de Gaulle’s wartime provisional government, the youngest of the acting ministers. “You again!” de Gaulle said when Mitterrand entered the room where a cabinet meeting was held, an unmistakable sign that the ambitious 27-year-old was in play. Still, the only job he could find after the war was as fashion editor of a women’s magazine, which prompted him to size up the opportunities in postwar politics. He stood for election to the National Assembly and soon thereafter won an appointment as minister for war veterans and victims of war, a post that reflected his long commitment to the cause of his fellow former prisoners of war. By 1965, he succeeded in forcing de Gaulle into a humiliating runoff for the presidency, but he remained an also-ran for another decade and a half before he finally won the office for himself in 1981.

Mitterrand’s accomplishments are significant in French history, if rather lackluster when compared with those of de Gaulle, the iconic figure in whose shadow Mitterrand pursued his political career. “Mitterrand . . . transformed France into a modern democratic state,” Short sums up, “legitimised the Left as a responsible voice in the nation’s political affairs and, together with Helmut Kohl, pushed Europe toward political union.” But Short understates what he has accomplished in his book, which depicts Mitterrand as a fascinating, if also deeply mysterious, character.

Jonathan Kirsch , book editor of the Jewish Journal, is the author of, most recently, “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.”


The Multiple Lives of François Mitterrand

By Philip Short

Henry Holt. 620 pp. $40