Obituary: Alain Peyrefitte

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HE WAS often called "the Saint-Simon of the Fifth Republic" by admirers with more journalistic flair than literary judgement. But there is no doubt that Alain Peyrefitte was, and will remain, an outstanding memorialist of the 20th century.

His very close associations with three presidents - de Gaulle, Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Georges Pompidou - gave him a front seat at the social and political dramas of their times. Indeed it was his scrupulous attention to every word uttered by Charles de Gaulle that provided him with the masses of notes and observations that contributed to the authoritative tone of his best-selling reminiscences in C'etait de Gaulle (1994-97). Recently he worked, together with his fellow Academician Alain Decaux, in close collaboration with Robert Hossein, director of a sensationally successful dramatisation of the former president's life in the long-running Celui qui a dit non.

Like Pompidou, he was the son of a schoolteacher (he was the brother of the writer Roger Peyrefitte, flamboyant, provocative and 18 years Alain's senior), and was a brilliant pupil of his lycees at Rodez and Montpellier. After graduating from the faculties of law and literature at Montepellier, he had a resplendent academic career at the Sorbonne and at the Ecole Normale Superieure in the rue d'Ulm, where he decided to enter the diplomatic service, studying at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration.

His first post was Secretary of Foreign Affairs in 1947, followed by a long string of distinguished appointments including postings to the embassies in Bonn and the consulate in Cracow. In politics, he was a fervent Gaullist, and his devotion to the president led to the later intimacy that gave him unprecedented insights into the character and political views of the French leader.

Many years later, Peyrefitte confessed that he originally had no desire to become a political figure. He was tall, good-looking, athletic, and enjoyed a varied social life: he was often photographed in the popular press and in fashion magazines swimming in Lac Leman, water- skiing, or skating at Megeve, tobogganing at Klosters. But, "My one and only passion was writing", he said. His favourite authors were Marguerite Yourcenar and Alexis de Tocqueville. He loved poetry, and could recite the works of Baudelaire, Mallarme, Valery and Prevert by heart, as he made a practice of doing while shaving every morning.

So it was no wonder that in spite of a long succession of ministerial appointments of the first rank he found time to write some well-researched and stylishly written books, including his one and only novel, Les Roseaux froisses ("Rumpled Reeds"). A selection of his titles shows the variety of his gifts and his interests: Le Sentiment de confiance, an essay (1947), Le Mythe de Penelope (1949), an essay rewarded with the Academie Francaise prize, Faut-il partager l'Algerie? (1961), Reponses a la violence (1977) and La france en desarroi: entre les peurs at l'espoir (1992).

But it was Peyrefitte's writings on China that made his name as a writer and historian, and the best-known work, Quand la Chine s'eveillera ("When China Awakens"), published in 1973, followed in 1977 by the controversial essay Le Mal francais ("The French Sickness"), led to his being elected to the Academie Francaise in February 1977, where he occupied the chair held formerly by another ambitious and adventurous author, Paul Morand.

That first book on China was followed by several others, often attacked mercilessly by left-wing elements and scholars who were true authorities on Mao and modern China. The events of Tiananmen Square set off a salvo of attacks on Peyrefitte's rather naive idealisation of Chinese history and cultural reform. Included with him in the criticisms were writers of similar woolly and rose-tinted views like Philippe Sollers and Bernard- Henri Levy.

The most notable accuser was Simon Leys, author of excellent demolitions of popular misapprehensions about Chairman Mao and China. In his Essais sur le Chine (1998), which includes the famous "Les Habits neufs du President Mao" ("President Mao's New Clothes"), an impressive, first-hand, outspoken chronicle of the "Cultural Revolution", Leys deplores the fact that such, a "circumspect" author as Peyrefitte should have accepted the totally fictional Chinese account of the death of Lin Biao, the last days of Chairman Mao and the realpolitik views on China of Nixon and Kissinger. Leys' sardonic footnotes on Peyrefitte's romantically misguided notions caused widespread amusement in France.

In these days of millennium wheels, domes and best-of practically everything, it is good to remember that Alain Peyrefitte, as editorial director of Le Figaro, had published in 1986 a "document", culled from the pages of the newspaper in the form of news cuttings and photographs of what he regarded as the great events of the century, entitled "L'aventure du XXme siecle", regularly updated and now presumably ready to be launched in its millennial entirety.

As in his professional career, he was off the mark very early, and has managed to complete his last assignment almost to the end of the century he dominated in his own multi-talented and always diplomatic fashion.

James Kirkup

Alain Peyrefitte, diplomat, politician and writer: born Najac, France 26 August 1925; Secretary of State to the Prime Minister (Information) 1962; Minister for Repatriates 1962; Minister for Information 1962-66; Minister for Scientific Research and Atomic Questions 1966-67; Minister of Education 1967-68; Minister of Administrative Reform and Planning 1973- 74; Minister of Culture and the Environment 1974; Minister of Justice 1977-81; married 1948 Monique Luton (one son, four daughters); died Paris 27 November 1999.