Monday, June 28, 2004

Marie-Claire Mendès France 1921-2004

Marie-Claire's husband
Pierre, the Jewish PM
On September 25, 1987, Jacques Chirac dispatched François Bujon and Camille Cabana (former president of the Institut du monde arabe) to Baghdad to lead the French delegation to the Babylon festival, a ten-day conference at which foreign companies competed to bid on petrodollar contracts for Saddam and in which sometimes as many as two million Iraqis (10% of the population!) were compelled to participate.

Bujon and Cabana were met by Saddam, who asked "How is my brother and friend Jacques Chirac?" Yet the very day the two left Paris, then Finance minister Edouard Balladur sent Chirac a letter expressing his disapproval of such generosity toward a country that had showed itself unwilling to pay for what it bought...

Years later, Chrac made Bujon ambassador to the US. When accusations of anti-Semitism began to appear in US newspapers, Bujon (now referred to by his high-flying but probably bogus name: Bujon de l'Estang) contributed an outraged editorial to the Washington Post, rebutting charges that France was witnessing a resurgence of anti-Semitism unparalleled since you-know-what. These acts of violence, he wrote, "don't make France any more anti-Semitic than the persistence of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists makes the United States a racist country on the verge of restoring segregation or slavery." Furthermore, in defending France, Bujon noted that "while the United States had to wait until the year 2000 to see a Jewish candidate run on the presidential ticket, France has had several Jewish heads of government, including Léon Blum in 1936 and Pierre Mendès France in 1954."

To-day, Le Monde reports that PMF's widow Marie-Claire, whom he married in 1971, has died, aged 83.

She came from a family with a grand radical left tradition: her father, Robert Servan-Schreiber, was the founder of the financial journal Les Echos and her mother was Suzanne Crémieux, a feminist and Senator representing the Radical Party. In memory of her husband, who died at his desk in 1982, Marie-Claire founded the Instiut Pierre Mendès France in 1985. Mme Mendès France was for a long time also head of the Le Monde readers' society but she resigned in 1991 after the paper published an editorial essay by Jean-Marie Le Pen. From 1983 to 1997, she presided over the International Center for Peace in the Middle East and in 1995 over an organization called "Sauver Sarah" ("Save Sarah") which campaigned in favor of a Filipina convicted in the United Arab Emirates of murdering her employer (who had raped her). The girl was freed a year later.

MCMF began her professional life as a reporter in 1944 and became deputy editor of Les Echos in 1958. From then until 1963, she was advertising director of l'Express, which was founded by her cousin Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber. In 1963, she was promoted to editor of Les Echos and then served as advertising director from 1964 to 1970.

Mme Mendès France was the author of L'Esprit de liberté ("the Spirit of Freedom," 1992) and Sarah au bout de l'enfer ("Sarah at the depths of Hell," 1996). In January 2003, she attended ceremonies to unveil a street named for PMF in the 13th arrondissement. She held the title of "officer of the legion of honor."

Anyhow, it always struck me as odd that no one ever pointed out that, though PMF was indeed France's youngest ever member of parliament and was also elected prime minister, and though he was indeed a Jew, this did not mean that his time in office passed without any incidence of anti-Semitism. The Vichy government tried PMF for "desertion" in 1941 though witnesses testified that no one had been more eager to fight the nazis than he. He was passed over for the prime ministership in 1956 because then president Renée Coty felt that a Jew would be politically incapable of making difficult decisions regarding the Algerian war. In 1965, PMF himself decided not to run against general de Gaulle because he feared that a possible defeat would set the nation's Jewry back. PMF once told the magazine l'Arche that "I know that I am a Jew. My children, who are no more observant than I am, know they are Jews. I can feel that the anti-Semites consider me as a Jew. There are the facts." Indeed, part of one of Le Pen's early forays into the political uses of anti-Semitism included the following remark: "M. Mendès France, you are aware that you are cristializing on your person a certain number of revulsions that are patriotic and almost physical."

This was your shining example French tolerance, Mr. Bujon?

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