Ever since Machiavelli, and probably long before that, successful statesmen have known that a plentiful stock of mendacity, as well as guile, are essential for anyone wishing to get ahead in politics. But what many of them may have forgotten during their arduous climb to the summit is that the often bitter accusations they level against their adversaries during the years of ascent can later be turned around and used against themselves when at last they have reached the top.

Francois Mitterrand’s spectacular career offers a classic illustration of this phenomenon. A quarter of a century ago, in 1964, when he was already posing as a “leftist” candidate against the “usurper” de Gaulle (so termed because he had connived in a military putsch before burying the Fourth and creating the Fifth Republic), he attacked the General’s mode of government in a book entitled Le Coup d’etat permanent. Today he would prefer to forget that he had ever written that blistering critique of autocratic government, for there was hardly a charge he then made against de Gaulle that could not be made against the present French president’s often peremptory modus gubernandi.

Last November the Paris weekly Le Point published a cover story entitled “Mitterrand—Le Roi et sa Cour” in which His would-be Majesty, dressed in a 17th-century perruque, matched by regal cane, Versailles slippers, and silk stockings, was displayed making his haughty way along an unrolled red carpet. The accompanying articles contained a number of pointed charges. The uncrowned king of the republic was accused of self-adulation (“Never has narcissism assumed such a scope, not even under Giscard, who used the attributes of power rather than power itself”), of a dangerous “Caesarian drift,” of an inordinate love of pomp and pageantry, of favoritism, of rule by a tiny clique of “insiders,” and even of nepotism (“The surveillance of Africa has been entrusted to one of his sons, Jean-Christophe; diplomacy to a very old friend, Roland Dumas; special [i.e., top-secret] missions to yet another intimate friend, François de Grossouvre, and sometimes—more rarely of late—to his brothers Jacques and Robert. As in the time of the Capetians, the republican monarch’s power extends to the whole of his family and to all of his closest friends”).

Shortly before Le Point came out with this critical assessment, one of France’s best radio journalists, Philippe Alexandre, had reached much the same conclusion in a best-selling book—Paysages de campagne (Campaign Landscapes)—composed of scenes he had witnessed, most of them during the election campaign of the previous May and June. The collection began with one describing how he and Philippe Labro, director of RTL (Radio-Television Luxembourg—France’s most listened-to radio station), had one day been received by the French president at the Elysée Palace. “Mitterrand seated himself on a couch and invited Labro and myself to sit down beside him. The others”—those whom Alexandre had previously termed “the courtier-collaborators”—”remained standing at attention, the women included. From time to time the president would toss them a bit of bone: ‘I have not been too long?’ And all would immediately protest, falling all over themselves like kennel dogs. Perfect, he had been perfect, luminous, concise, imperial. He swallowed these sugary tid-bits with no show of surprise, as though it was his daily fare.”

What makes this situation so piquant is not simply the obvious fact that the neosocialist Monsieur Mitterrand is now walking in the footsteps of the republican monarch—le grand Charles—he once castigated in such acrimonious terms; it is also the ironic realization that the biographical wheel has come full circle; for this same François Mitterrand is an older version of the Angoulême schoolboy who, like his father and his brothers, felt a passing sympathy for the extreme rightwing (and usually monarchist) Action Française.

About François Mitterrand’s later “conversion” to socialism there is a great deal to be said—far more than there is room for here. But what was particularly intriguing, at least for me, about the accusations leveled against the uncrowned president’s monarchical pretensions was his own querulous reaction. François Mitterrand, we were informed by persons in a position to know, was absolutely livid over the special issue of Le Point, and furious that anybody could harbor such misguided notions about a person whose staunchly republican credentials were impeccable.

It is here that one can measure the considerable gap that separates François Mitterrand from the rashly decried man whose enormous powers he has inherited. The 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic, as is well known, was tailor-made for Charles de Gaulle, even though its crowning refinement—having the president elected by the people of France rather than by a “grand assembly” of notables comprising the two houses of parliament—was not added until later (the autumn of 1962).

Some months after de Gaulle’s election to the presidency (December 1958), the Canard enchaîné—which, unless I am mistaken, is Europe’s oldest satirical weekly (it was founded back in 1914)—began publishing a charmingly illustrated feature called “La Cour.” Written by Andre Riband in the baroque style of Saint-Simon, this marvelously old-fashioned chronicle of the goings-on at the Elysée Palace was a sustained tour de force that the author managed to keep up not only for a full decade, but even to prolong for several years, after Georges Pompidou had succeeded the general, with a subsequent feature called “La Régence.” De Gaulle, who occasionally had offending newspapers seized thanks to the emergency powers granted to him during the Algerian-wartime years (1958-1962), never once attempted to have the Canard enchaîné suppressed, knowing that it would have been the height of folly and tantamount to political suicide. In fact, he was an assiduous reader of “La Cour,” and far from being upset or miffed, he seems to have derived an Olympian amusement at finding himself thus compared, week after week, with Louis XIV.

Even in France few persons, I suspect, realize just how Olympian that distance could sometimes be. For example, on April 21, 1961, which happened to be a Friday, four frustrated French generals who were bent on keeping Algeria French staged a military putsch in Algiers. Immediately metropolitan France was swamped with wild rumors, according to which les paras (the paratroopers) were about to drop out of the sky over Paris, or had even landed to prepare a bridgehead near Marseille. On Saturday morning a panicky Prime Minister Michel Debré had to go on the air—the television screen had not yet replaced the radio set as a means of mass communication—and plead with his countrymen, asking them to go out to the airport of Orly by any available means—in their automobiles, on bicycles, in vans, trucks, or carts, indeed “à pied ou à cheval” (on foot or on horseback, as the wits promptly mocked) in order to block the runways and prevent General Salan and his colleagues from landing their armed men and dangerous munitions. And indeed, for the next three days everyone remained on tenter-hooks, prepared for the grim news that the invaders, like trans-Mediterranean Martians, had landed at last.

But what, meanwhile, was de Gaulle doing? The answer is simple: he spent a good part of that critical weekend in his country house at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises . . . reading a book! Yes, a book about the “government of men” written by Pierre Massenet, a former aeronautic engineer and wartime resister who, after the liberation, had been given the thankless task of holding the “red” seaport of Marseille against local Communist militants, who at one point had wanted to seize the railway marshalling yards at Aix-en-Provence and had been kept from doing so by the planting of mines (this during the unforgettably “hot” summer of 1947). Well, not only did de Gaulle read Massenet’s book, he was so impressed that he took the trouble to write him a letter of appreciation. It was dated, as I recall, Saturday, April 22—which is to say, during the very middle of the Algerian generals’ insurrection, when one would have supposed that de Gaulle’s attention was focused on more urgent matters. “Curieux, n’est-ce pas?” Massenet later said to me, showing me the letter. Curious, indeed!

Though there is no telling what that extraordinary political chameleon. Francois Mitterrand, is likely to do next, I very much doubt that he will ever reach this altitude of Olympian aloofness. None of the crises he has so far had to face have been anywhere near as dangerous as those de Gaulle had to deal with. But the fact remains that because the Constitution of 1958 was tailor-made for de Gaulle, it instituted a post of deputy-leader or “second-in-command”—the premiership. It was to be the job of the prime minister to deal with the unruly parliament (which de Gaulle basically disliked intensely), to take care of irksome administrative chores—in a word, to do the “dirty work” of daily governing. The devoted Michel Debré understood this perfectly, stoically swallowing his most cherished ideas and principles (up until then he had been a fervent champion of a French Algeria) and then retiring without a murmur of complaint when the Master signified to him that his time was up and that someone of greater intellectual calibre (Georges Pompidou) was going to succeed him.

Eventually de Gaulle’s fondness for Pompidou turned into bitter hatred, when he realized that his chosen “instrument” had a will of his own and—oh, sacrilege of sacrileges!—was getting ready to succeed him.

This is why the monarchical analogy, in Mitterrand’s case, strikes me as being as misleading as it is enlightening. The present rivalry that exists between the harassed premier, Michel Rocard—the hardworking beaver who has to do the dirty work and take the blame when things go badly—and the aloof François Mitterrand, ever ready and indeed of an eagle-eyed determination to seize the credit when things go well, is nothing really new, even though it has been built into the very heart of the Fifth Republic’s Constitution. The clash of wills—the bitter rivalry that so often divides father and son, the potential “heir” from the reigning family head—is an ancient one and as old as Oedipus.

In the entertaining Bebète-Show, which occasionally precedes the 8 p.m. news round-up on France’s first TV channel and in which the country’s major political figures are all given partly animal faces, Mitterrand now appears in the guise of a frog, and Michel Rocard in that of a leaf-clad “joker” or court fool. The relationship of lord and knave, of Seigneur and bouffon, is thus wondrously transcribed, and subtly exploited by jean Amadou (the author of the witty script) by having Joker-Rocard address his lord and master, Dieu, in outlandish terms as, “O, Light of the Universe!,” “Divine Fount of Sagacity!,” “Beacon of the Celestial Depths!,” “Glorious Crankshaft of the Cosmos!,” and so on.

Mitterrand, in answer to journalists’ questioning, has said that he doesn’t mind in the least being turned into a frog (slightly reminiscent of Kenneth Grahame’s Toad of Toad Hall). This kind of comic satire, after all, is flattering to his vanity and ego, whether would-be regal or demigodlike. It helps alleviate the feeling of irascible ennui to which, insiders claim, François Mitterrand is increasingly prone, as a septuagenarian who, notwithstanding appearances—having himself escorted in the street by some ravishing young lady or making furtive trips to Venice —knows that his is a mosdy spent force and that the reins, willy-nilly, are slipping from his hands.