Until recently most people knew French singer-actor Yves Montand for his deft portrayal of the heroes in Costa-Gavras’s human rights films Z and The Confession. Montand’s political identity was that of a staunch supporter of the French left. But last fall the 62-year-old matinee idol, who once consistently signed nuclear disarmament petitions, suddenly became a vociferous champion of stationing nuclear warheads in Europe. He even branded President François Mitterrand’s Socialist government’s former coalition with the French Communists a danger to the world. Montand is not a member of any political party. Still, through his public pronouncements he has become France’s most popular political figure, seizing the high ground that was once the exclusive preserve of diehard conservatives. Now, in a complete about-face, he even complains that Ronald Reagan is not firm enough with the Soviet Union.
Montand has emerged as the symbol of France’s current discontent. Indeed, in tapping the widespread disillusionment not only with the Socialist government but with the entire rigid right-left polarity of French politics, the Montand phenomenon, as the press has called it, could change the country’s political geography. Said the conservative daily Le Parisien Libéré: “Montand is the voice of France.”
In his 90-minute public affairs television special in February, Vive la Crise, Montand warned a record audience of six million that only the will of every individual French citizen could lift France out of its economic crisis and safeguard democracy from the Kremlin threat. Montand’s reversal is all the more remarkable because his solidarity with the Communists once ran so deep that he and his actress wife, Simone Signoret, refused to cancel a trip to Moscow shortly after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. In the Soviet capital Premier Nikita Khrushchev personally greeted them.
Now the Soviet daily Izvestia has denounced Montand as a bull that charges at the sight of anything red. In France the bitterness of the attacks of Communist party officials is a gauge of the overwhelming response to Montand’s new conservatism. He receives an overwhelming amount of fan mail and even unsolicited cheques. In fact, public opinpolls reveal that 56 per cent of
French people agree with him, 42 per cent think he could renew the country’s
political life and 18 per cent want him to run for president.
Montand’s political impact stems from the same quality that made him an enduring star—his ability to project himself as a kind of everyman. His working-class credentials are sound. After leaving school at 11 he arrived in
France as a penniless Italian immigrant to work at the Marseilles docks and factories. His rise to stardom began in 1944, when he auditioned for legendary French actress Edith Piaf at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. She chose him not only
as her singing partner, but as her lover. Throughout his sold-out music hall triumphs of the 1950s and 1960s and 56 films, he wore his fame and fortune without ostentation. He and Signoret, 63, having survived his much-publicized 1960 romance with actress Marilyn Monroe, still live in the same modest duplex on Paris’s Place Dauphine that
they moved into after their marriage 33 years ago.
Montand’s newfound hawkishness is as credible as his sincerity in marching against the Greek colonels in Z. And his language is as blunt and easy to grasp as it was in the film. Said writer Françoise Giroud: “Montand has neither the vocabulary nor the means of a great orator. But he has more impact than most professionals.”
Montand admits that his conversion to conservatism came slowly. He began to question his socialist beliefs in 1968 after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He says that the revelations of Soviet dissident novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn about the Soviet Union’s barbaric prison system shocked him. Said Montand: “For years I had doubts but I kept them to myself.” The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the imposition of martial law in Poland and last summer’s shooting down of the Korean Air Lines passenger jet forced him to speak out. Declared Montand: “This is a question of survival. Those of us who sympathized blindly were idiots.”
Some of Montand’s critics charge that he is merely exploiting for his own political or even commercial gain the French intellectual establishment’s disillusioned drift from the left. Said Jean Daniel of the left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur: “He has said out loud what many of us thought in secret.” But if he has roundly upbraided Mitterrand for having dallied with the Communist party, he has saluted the president’s tough anti-Soviet foreign policy. Indeed, Montand’s TV special drew as much applause from government ministers as from the conservative opposition. Explained Montand: “What is crucial these days is not to be conceptually on the left or right but to be lucid.”
Mainstream parties on both left and right have unsuccessfully wooed Montand, and he turned down an offer to head a centrist list in June’s European Parliament elections. But he has coyly left himself open for a possible draft as a presidential candidate for the next elections in 1988. He has kept himself free from entertainment commitments for the next two years and, having temporarily eased his media blitz, talks of wanting to gather a group of advisers around him to reflect on issues.
Certainly, Montand is well aware of the precedent that already exists for an actor becoming president. He says that he should not become president because he was a good actor, unlike Ronald Reagan, who, Montand says, did so because he was a bad one. Still, Montand is also aware of the polls showing that 52 per cent of French people think he is all the more effective a political force out of politics altogether.
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