This Day in Jewish History

1907: A Future French Premier Is Born

Pierre Mendes France, the prime minister who withdrew France from Vietnam, served for less than a year. He also, at one point, broke out of jail with a saw.

Pierre Mendes
Wikimedia Commons

January 11, 1907 is the birthdate of Pierre Mendes France, the French premier who – though he was only in office for a little more than half a year – is credited with withdrawing  his country’s troops from Vietnam and negotiating independence with Tunisia.

Mendes France was born in Paris to an assimilated Jewish family (its original name was Mendo Franca) that had come to France from Portugal during the 16th century. He was a brilliant and industrious student from a young age but at university, encountering the rabid anti-Semitism of parts of France’s political right, he also became involved in politics leading the Radical Socialist Party’s youth organization.

After earning his law degree at the University of Paris, Mendes France became the youngest member of the Paris bar association in 1928. By 1930, he had written a thesis on monetary reform and published his first book on international monetary policy; two years later, having moved to rural Normandy, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies as its youngest member and served as mayor of his new home, Louviers. When Leon Blum, the country’s first Jewish premier, brought him back to Paris in 1938 to serve as one of two undersecretaries of the Treasury, together with Georges Boris, also a Jew, the idea of three Jewish men overseeing economic policy brought out blatant expressions of anti-Semitism, both in the press and the legislature itself.

When World War II began, Mendes (as he was widely called in France) volunteered for the air force, but after France was occupied by Germany, he moved with his family to Morocco where he joined the Free French resistance forces. In 1941, he was tried and convicted of desertion by the Vichy regime, only to escape from prison by sawing through the bars of his cell. Making his way to London, Mendes rejoined the resistance, and later the government-in-exile set up in Algeria by Charles de Gaulle. Although he and de Gaulle later had a falling out, the leader of Free French forces appointed Mendes France to several significant economic positions.

In 1947, when regular politics resumed, Mendes was elected again to the National Assembly. With very firm solutions for how to get France out of its ongoing economic crisis and clear-cut ideas on ending the country’s colonial ventures overseas, he put himself forward several times as a candidate for premier.

He finally had his chance in June 1954 after French forces were defeated by the Communists at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and the government of Joseph Laniel resigned. Mendes France formed a government on June 18. One of his first acts was to go to Geneva to negotiate peace with Vietminh leader Ho Chi Minh – an agreement that led to the division of the former French colony into communist North Vietnam and the anti-communist South Vietnam, setting the stage for American involvement a few years later.

Mendes France then went to Tunisia, and negotiated an agreement with the growing independence movement that led to an independent state by 1956. He also began similar discussions with the nationalists in Morocco. At the same time, however, Algeria’s fight for independence began and on February 5, 1955, less than seven months after taking office, the government of Mendes France lost a vote of confidence over Algeria in parliament and he resigned.

After de Gaulle came to power and replaced the Fourth Republic with a presidential-style Fifth Republic, Mendes France became affiliated with the Unified Socialist Party, and later with the new Socialist Party. He was in and out of the legislature, but never again played a major role in elective politics in France. By the time Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand became president, in 1981, Mendes Frances was too old to join his government. In his final decades, he did, however, command great respect as a public intellectual, particularly on economic issues (he believed in more government control over and coordination of the economy), and for his efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, though these efforts were not always appreciated in Israel.

Pierre Mendes France died on October 18, 1982.