PARIS -- All of France is intrigued by why President Francois Mitterrand cooperated in the writing of a new book that describes how he faithfully served the wartime Vichy government and remained friendly afterward with some of that pro-Nazi regime's most unsavory characters.
The book, "A French Youth," lifts the veil on Mr. Mitterrand's World War II years. It details his role as a Vichy official so devoted to its chief, Marshal Philippe Petain, that he was awarded a high decoration attesting to his loyalty.
Presidential aides have confirmed that author Pierre Pean interviewed Mr. Mitterrand seven times and was allowed access to many personal papers and letters dating from the war.
Historians of the period have known that Mr. Mitterrand's activities between France's defeat by Germany in 1940 and its liberation by the United States and its allies four years later were, at the very least, open to widely differing interpretations.
Mr. Mitterrand deserted the Vichy government and joined the resistance against the Germans only in 1943, after the Allies' victory had become a certainty.
It tells a lot about French politics that his opponents never have tried to use his Vichy background against him.
"French politicians are careful not to go for each other's jugular," political analyst Rene Remond points out.
"They all have something to hide."
Aside from confirming his involvement with the Vichy regime, Mr. Pean's book makes clear that as a student in the 1930s, the future Socialist leader was a deep-dyed right-winger, although he claims not to have joined any of the pro-fascist movements that flourished then.
During the Vichy period, his close associates included Xavier Valat, who became commissioner-general for "Jewish questions" -- in other words, the official in charge of enforcing the regime's anti-Semitic laws.
Mr. Mitterrand told Mr. Pean that his own job was to "prepare official reports" on Communists, supporters of Free French leader Charles de Gaulle and others suspected of opposing Vichy's policy of collaboration with Hitler.
Possibly Mr. Mitterrand's most startling revelation concerns his close friendship with Vichy police chief Rene Bousquet, who cooperated with the Germans in deporting tens of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps.
It was a friendship that survived the war and ended only when Mr. Bousquet was assassinated last year in Paris as he was about to be tried for crimes against humanity. In the book, the French president calls Mr. Bousquet personally "appealing" and good company.
The book hints at what has been long suspected -- that the ex-Vichy policeman dodged prosecution as a war criminal for more than four decades because of powerful political protectors including, it would seem, Mr. Mitterrand.
Why would Mr. Mitterrand deliberately confess all of this? One reason may be that he isn't standing for re-election next April.
"He's trying to 'shape' his place in history while he still can," according to conservative political analyst Paul Guibert. "Pean's book isn't a whitewash, but it could have been far worse. It makes some admissions but holds back the whole truth."
One suspicion is that Mr. Mitterrand agreed to talk to Mr. Pean after learning that another, reportedly more damaging book on his wartime career was also in preparation.
That book, by John Laughland of Paris' Institute of Political Science, is due for publication later this month. It is understood to depict the young Mr. Mitterrand as much more deeply committed to Vichy and right-wing extremism than he is portrayed by Mr. Pean.
"Mitterrand was anxious to take the sting out of Laughland's book by getting in first with his own version," says Mr. Guibert.
Recent months in office haven't been happy ones for the West's longest-serving political leader, who has been in power since 1981.
Seriously ill with prostate cancer, the 77-year-old Mr. Mitterrand has faced a spate of recent allegations linking him to governmental corruption.
In a judicial investigation earlier this year, accusations even emerged that a close personal friend, whose business profited greatly from dealings with the state, returned the favor by paying the bills for one of the president's many romantic liaisons.