Commentary (Sunday Times)

Falklands: “The Sphinx and the curious case of the Iron Lady’s H-bomb” (memoirs of Mitterrand’s psychoanalyst)

Document type: Press
Source: Sunday Times , 20 November 2005
Journalist: John Follain, The Sunday Times
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3,026 words
Themes: Defence (Falklands), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (Western Europe - non-EU)

The Sphinx and the curious case of the Iron Lady's H-bomb François Mitterrand took many secrets with him when he died 10 years ago, but now his most startling claim is revealed. John Follain reports

It is May 7, 1982, shortly after 3.30pm. Ali Magoudi, a Parisian psychoanalyst, paces back and forth awaiting the secret arrival of his next patient — whose identity, if revealed, would set off an earthquake in French politics.

The figure who enters, 45 minutes late, is François Mitterrand, no less — the president of France. Magoudi discovers that his patient does not want to talk about his childhood or his dreams, but about Margaret Thatcher and the crisis over the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands.

“Excuse me,” Mitterrand begins, apologising for his late arrival. “I had a difference of opinion to settle with the Iron Lady. What an impossible woman, that Thatcher! “With her four nuclear submarines on mission in the southern Atlantic, she threatens to launch the atomic weapon against Argentina — unless I supply her with the secret codes that render deaf and blind the missiles we have sold to the Argentinians. Margaret has given me very precise instructions on the telephone.”

The scene is the most striking in Magoudi’s book, Rendez-vous: The psychoanalysis of François Mitterrand, which is to be published in France on Friday. An account of their meetings, which spanned 11 years from 1982 to 1993, it is by far the most revealing of a flurry of books preceding the 10th anniversary of Mitterrand’s death on January 8, 1996.

The psychoanalyst has assured his publisher that all the quotes attributed to Mitterrand are genuine, although he cannot vouch for the truth of what the president said.

Magoudi never fathoms Mitterrand out enough to draw up a psychological profile. But in notes taken after their meetings, he writes of his patient’s near-mystical enjoyment of power, his paranoid tendencies, his “massive anxiety” and the way morbid images frequently crop up in his speech.

The French are still fascinated by the socialist leader who ruled France for 14 years, and who so cultivated an aura of mystery he was nicknamed “le Sphinx”. Although he claimed to have brought morality into French politics, his legacy has been clouded by corruption scandals. Last month, seven of his former associates were convicted of invasion of privacy for their role in a phone-tapping operation that he orchestrated on spurious national security grounds.

Imagine a Tony Blair, a George W Bush or a Vladimir Putin confiding to a psychoanalyst long-buried childhood memories; glimpses of his private life involving an estranged wife, a mistress and an illegitimate daughter; fears of illness and death; and the occasional state secret or state lie.

Magoudi says his book was ordered by Mitterrand himself, who knew he would not live to see it published. It is a bizarre, intimate and haunting testament. Above all, it throws a new light on the help Mitterrand gave to Thatcher — who, he famously said, “had the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe”.

IT WAS in early May 1982, after a year in power, that Mitterrand contacted Magoudi to ask him to become his therapist. The psychoanalyst accepted with reluctance: he didn’t relish the prospect of the secret service searching his study in the Marais district or curious courtiers bugging his telephone.

The next day, on May 4, two French-manufactured Super Etendard planes of the Argentine airforce attacked HMS Sheffield, a destroyer in the British taskforce steaming to the Falkland islands.

A wave-skimming Exocet missile hit the Sheffield amidships, killing 20 crew and injuring 24. The destroyer was scuttled and British naval commanders swiftly concluded that this French-made weapon was so effective that the entire operation to throw the Argentine occupiers out of the islands was at risk.

Mitterrand had already pledged co-operation to Thatcher. Jacques Attali, his former aide, wrote that the president called her on the day after the invasion and told her: “I am with you.”

According to Attali, who acted as his interpreter, “she was stunned and did not expect it”. Mitterrand had come to her aid while her friend Ronald Reagan dithered.

Now Magoudi adds a nuclear twist to this apparently selfless entente. He writes that the death toll on the stricken Sheffield did not appear to impress Mitterrand unduly.

“In war, when there is one death, it is already a lot,” the president said as their therapy session got under way three days later. “But, after all, these soldiers were professionals. If they were serving on this destroyer, it’s because they were volunteers. When you do this kind of job, you don’t invoke the gods every time there is a small hitch.”

Mitterrand added: “I express myself freely in telling you this. I won’t say it in public, of course.”

In full flow, he told Magoudi that he had ordered the Exocet’s secrets to be handed over to the British at Thatcher’s insistence.

“She is furious,” he said. “She blames me personally for this new Trafalgar . . . I have been forced to yield. She has them now, the codes. If our customers find out that the French wreck the weapons they sell, it’s not going to reflect well on our exports.

“I ask you to keep that to yourself. I’ve been told that psychoanalysts don’t know how to keep mum in town! Is that true?” Magoudi did not reply. Instead he asked: “How do you react to such an intransigent woman?” Mitterrand replied: “What do you expect? You can’t win a struggle against the insular syndrome of an unbridled Englishwoman. To provoke a nuclear war for small islands inhabited by three sheep who are as hairy as they are frozen! Fortunately I yielded to her. Otherwise, I assure you, the metallic index finger of the lady would press the button.”

Magoudi wanted to know how his patient felt about being “symbolically emasculated”, as the psychoanalyst put it. “You mean that in the face of such aggressiveness you remain passive?” he asked.

“I will have the last word,” Mitterrand replied. “Her island, it’s me who will destroy it. Her island, I swear that soon it will no longer be one. I will take my revenge. I will tie England to Europe, despite its natural tendency for isolation. How? I will build a tunnel under the Channel. Yes. I will succeed where Napoleon III failed.”

Clearly delighted with his vision, Mitterrand had no doubt he would persuade Thatcher to accept the tunnel. “I will flatter her shopkeeper spirit. I will tell her that the welding to the Continent will not cost the crown one kopeck. She will not resist this resonant argument.”

What are we to make of this account? What we do know is that there were British nuclear weapons in the Falklands conflict zone. According to Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College London, the British taskforce carried nuclear depth charges. But he said there was no intention to use them.

A number of ships that had been on exercises off Gibraltar had been ordered to steam south with nuclear depth charges on board rather than use up precious time unloading them.

“The government was desperate to get them away from the taskforce but the delays this would have caused at a time when they were trying to make the biggest diplomatic impact meant they decided they had better take them,” Freedman said. “They put them in the safest places possible. There was no intention to use them, but they certainly went.”

There have been no credible reports of Polaris nuclear-armed submarines in the area. But, two years after the war, the Labour party demanded an official inquiry into a report that Britain had sent a Polaris to Ascension Island, the staging post for the taskforce, to be on stand-by for a nuclear attack on the Argentine city of Cordoba if the war went badly.

The retired admirals who had been in charge of the Royal Navy during the conflict denied the charge. Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, then chief of the defence staff, said a nuclear attack “never entered our remotest thoughts”. Admiral Henry Leach, chief of the naval staff at the time, said: “We did not contemplate a nuclear attack and did not make any even potentially preparatory moves for such action.”

Was Thatcher bluffing Mitterrand? Or was he exaggerating her ruthlessness? He certainly gave her the Exocet codes, despite the resistance of his ministers and military chiefs, who wanted to protect French secrets and would have been happy to see Britain humiliated.

Investigations in the 1990s revealed that France provided Britain with a large amount of technical assistance. The most valuable information was on the Exocet’s homing radar. Officials of Aerospatiale, the manufacturer, denied having direct dealings with the British; but Aerospatiale was run by Jacques Mitterrand, the president’s brother, a fact that may have facilitated a quiet arrangement.

Sir John Nott, defence minister during the Falklands war, revealed in his memoirs that the French also supplied aircraft similar to those sold to Argentina for British pilots to practise against.

“In so many ways,” wrote Nott, a diehard Eurosceptic like Thatcher, “Mitterrand and the French were our greatest allies.”

Thatcher wrote in her memoirs that the French president was “absolutely staunch” in his support. “I was to have many disputes with President Mitterrand in later years,” she wrote. “But I never forgot the debt we owed him for his personal support throughout the Falklands crisis.”

Mitterrand’s own assessment of her was confided to Attali. “Of course it is only power that matters,” he said late one night in 1982. “You can do nothing without it. That’s why I admire Thatcher.”

For all her exasperating behaviour over Europe, “a mutual trust united them”, Attali said on the release of a book of his conversations with Mitterrand in 1996. “There was a certain tension between them, but they had a relationship of seduction, the rapport of man-woman.”

And, according to Attali, Mitterrand’s “Caligula” remark had been misquoted. He had actually said she had “the eyes of Stalin and the voice of Marilyn Monroe”.

As for Mitterrand’s payback, the Channel tunnel, this agreement was sealed when Thatcher visited Paris in November 1984, two years after the Falklands war. Reports at the time spoke of a late-night session over whisky at the British ambassador’s residence in the rue de Faubourg St Honoré, where her doubts turned to an almost messianic belief in the project.

At 2am she drank a toast to Anglo-French co-operation. “We had to have another drink before we were allowed to go to bed,” the late Nick Ridley, who was transport secretary, recorded in his memoirs, “exhausted though we were.”

The tunnel was meant to open in 1993 at a cost of £5 billion. In fact it limped into operation with a limited service in 1994 at £12 billion, and in its first year of operation lost £900m. Mitterrand had his revenge — although the tunnel has proved as much as a financial black hole for France as for Britain. Eurotunnel, the Anglo-French operating company, owes more than £6 billion.

IN HIS book Magoudi provides other insights into the president’s secret and manipulative ways. He has kept secret the locations of some of their meetings but says their therapy sessions lasted for a total of 18 hours. They also met informally for lunch and sometimes travelled together, he says.

At their first meeting, Mitterrand’s pale complexion and mummy-like pursed lips struck the therapist as signs of illness. The president revealed he had prostate cancer — a secret that was to be kept from the French public for most of his years in power.

“My doctors are categorical,” he said. “The shooting pain I felt behind the thigh is not a sciatica, which is what Claude Gubler (his doctor) told the press . . . I have a minuscule cancer which only men suffer from.” It had spread to the bone and Mitterrand doubted the efficacy of his medical treatment.

He had consulted the astrologist Elizabeth Teissier, a former model and soft-porn actress, who had advised him to take no chances “given my current astral conjunction”. She had suggested he find a psychoanalyst to help him fight the cancer mentally. Mitterrand had picked Magoudi after asking intelligence agents to investigate him.

“I have waited for this presidency and the pleasure it gives me for too long to allow myself to be manoeuvred by death,” Mitterrand told Magoudi. “Do you realise? I have waited for more than 40 years before taking the place of Charles de Gaulle.”

A prominent politician since the 1950s, Mitterrand had used the French socialist party as a vehicle for personal political survival during the long Gaullist ascendancy of the 1960s and 1970s. On arriving at the presidential Elysée Palace, he had immediately chosen de Gaulle’s former office for himself.

“Today it’s me who speaks in the name of France,” he told Magoudi. “Every time I rejoice internally . . . You do not know the joy that the love coming from all the French gives you. You will never know the effects of that drug.”

Mitterrand had a plan: “to act, a little; to speak, a great deal; to build, enormously; to travel, definitely”.

He appealed to Magoudi to help him in the mental fight to live long enough to fulfil this goal. “From you I ask only one thing. Help me to gain time, the time to build the image that I wish to leave to history. I need more of it, of time. A great deal.”

After a few sessions, Mitterrand revealed to Magoudi the existence of his illegitimate daughter, Mazarine, born in 1974 when he was 58. He said that for years he had no longer lived with Danielle, his wife. This was at a time when all of France save for a few intimate friends of Mitterrand believed the president and the first lady shared a house on the Left Bank.

To hide Mazarine, his daughter by his mistress Anne Pingeot, a curator at the Musée d’Orsay, Mitterrand set up a vast and illicit eavesdropping apparatus that targeted politicians, lawyers, journalists and celebrities.

He did not speak publicly about Mazarine until shortly before his death, by which time she was a university student. Most French people saw her for the first time when she appeared at his funeral.

“I have had adventures,” Mitterrand told Magoudi. “I was a rather handsome young man with a desire to seduce made all the more intense by the fact that, deep down, I wasn’t self-confident.”

Comparing himself to Don Giovanni, he quipped that he had made fewer conquests than the “mille e tre” (1,003) attributed to the seducer in Mozart’s opera. “Of one thing I am certain: the arrival of my daughter, as I was getting close to the age of 60, threw me into the fountain of youth!” After Mazarine’s birth, the president confided, several friends had advised him to seek a discreet divorce. If he had refused to do so it was not to respect any familial or religious prohibition. Nor was it to bend to a conformism that would have stopped voters from supporting his presidential bid.

“If I preferred this state of confusion and secrecy, it’s that I cannot resolve myself to leaving those I have loved. I don’t break with somebody. I add up.”

Magoudi found himself entrusted with secrets and lies that, were they to become public, could have forced Mitterrand to abandon the presidency. A coughing fit, prompted by a casual mention of the number 15, led to an abrupt confession about one of the most controversial incidents in Mitterrand’s political life.

He confirmed that on the night of October 15, 1955, he had stage-managed an attempt on his own life — the machinegunning of his car south of the Luxembourg Gardens. Mitterrand always publicly denied any role in this attack, known as l’affaire de l’Observatoire, which had led to a scandal that cost him his parliamentary immunity and almost brought his political career to an end.

It had been a time of rare tension, he explained to Magoudi, with French settlers in Algeria waging a violent campaign against anyone, like himself, who advocated dialogue with that colony’s independence movement. He had no regrets: it was the only way of obtaining police protection.

Mitterrand returned again and again to his obsession with death. In one aside, while complaining that the Elysée Palace was too small, he said he had contemplated shifting the presidency to the sprawling Invalides complex by Napoleon’s tomb on the other side of the Seine.

“To get closer to the ashes of Napoleon would have amused me, but people would have called me a megalomaniac. I soon dropped the idea.”

One morning, Magoudi found a message on his answerphone from Mitterrand, who told him that in the night he had suffered from stomach pains so virulent he feared he would die. Yet the doctor had told him the symptoms were purely psychological.

“Ever since childhood, the idea of an imminent death seizes me sporadically,” the message ran. “In the lonely night I sometimes feel oppressed or seized by panic. Sometimes I am even terrified.”

On a flight back to Paris from Vietnam in early 1993, according to Magoudi, the president called him aside and said: “The time has come. My end is near. I have a commission for you: write the psychoanalysis of François Mitterrand . . . Use everything I have confided to you . . . Do it for the 10th anniversary of my death.”

Mitterrand’s presidency ended in 1995. He died the following year. Thatcher remembered him as “quieter, more urbane” than Jacques Chirac, his long-term rival and successor as president. Chirac “had a sure grasp of detail and a profound interest in economics” while Mitterrand “was a self- conscious intellectual, fascinated by foreign policy and bored by detail and possibly contemptuous of economics”.

“Oddly enough,” she wrote, “I liked them both.”

Rendez-vous: La psychanalyse de François Mitterrand, by Ali Magoudi, is published on Friday by Maren Sell Editeurs, Paris