Obituary: Ambroise Roux

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The Independent Culture
SOME 20 years after the death of Georges Pompidou a large seminar was held in Paris to discuss the life and work of the former President. Naturally, much was said about his literary scholarship, his experience as managing director of Rothschild's bank, his political and diplomatic skills. Towards the end of the two-day meeting attention was turned to economic matters.

It was then that Ambroise Roux made his appearance. A well-dressed and impressive man, he spoke shortly and positively. Georges Pompidou, he said, was a peasant. He explained that he was using the term in its most noble sense, but, he went on to explain, Pompidou detested technocrats, he would never (Roux believed) have been in favour of the Maastricht Agreement; he was the Colbert of the 20th century. Roux told how he had guided him in the move to a successful nuclear system in France.

These remarks obviously caused offence to the officials present who had advised Pompidou on industrial matters. The chairman endeavoured to smooth matters by speaking of the traditional rivalry between the Ecole Normale Superieure (where Pompidou had studied) and the Ecole Polytechnique which Roux had chosen. But this was not only a statement made by the grand old man of French capitalism with reference to the planners, it was also a claim of importance which was typically controversial. Now that Ambroise Roux has died we have to recognise how his assessments of what he had done were frequently contradicted by other authorities. He was a character.

Roux's father was in newspaper management and his mother was related to the pharmacist family Poulenc. After graduating from the Polytechnique he went to the office of Jean-Marie Louvel, who was from 1951 to 1954 the Social Catholic Minister for Industry and who had a particular interest in Euratom and in the construction of the Common Market.

He maintained his relations with Louvel and having established himself within the Compagnie Generale d'Electricite, he arranged for the former minister to become president of the group. He always appeared as his likely successor, and when Louvel died, in 1970, Roux became president. It was as president of this powerful group, as vice-president of the Comite du Patronat Francais, and as the president of the Commission Economique Generale, that Roux became a close adviser to Pompidou.

He built many factories. He acquired many companies. He sat on many boards. He became the supreme example of the French system whereby a powerful president could not be controlled by boards or by shareholders. Nor did he ever think it necessary to consult with the trade unions.

He suffered defeats. His friendly relationship with Pompidou was not paralleled by friendship with Giscard d'Estaing and, although his personal relations with Mitterrand were good, he could not escape the nationalisations that followed his election to the Presidency in 1981. He was obliged to resign from the Compagnie Generale d'Electricite when it became Alcatel.

But he immediately launched his most famous idea. In 1982 he created Afep (Associations Francaise des Entreprises Privees), the organisation which would protect the interests of private enterprise against the encroachments of the state. It was meant to take the place of the Comite du Patronat Francais which Roux thought was inept since it did not have strong political views. Bringing together in the Hotel Crillon some 24 presidents of the biggest business interests, what he called "l'establishment", he sought to give vigour to French capitalism.

But once again contacts were important. He became a close friend of Edouard Balladur, who became Minister for Finance in the co-habitation government of 1986. And he became a regular visitor to the Elysee, since Mitterrand's socialism did not prevent him from taking a keen interest in the markets. Preaching a discretion that he did not always follow himself, Roux was able to discuss all aspects of economic affairs with governments. He believed that businesses were united because they had common interests and that where there were rivalries he could bring about reconciliations. In the matter of appointments to important posts, whether in business or in government, he was very powerful.

It is strange that his political judgement was not always sound. He never believed that Mitterrand would become President of the Republic; he was one of those who advised Chirac to take the disastrous decision to dissolve the Assembly in 1997; and in 1998 he thought that the right wing would be well advised to come to an agreement with Le Pen's National Front. Yet the importance of the united patrons of French capitalism was such that such errors were brushed aside.

Roux played his role as the incarnation of money and power. As president of the Compagnie Generale d'Electricite he had his private lift and a private cinema; he claimed to have the finest private address book in France; he controlled the dress of his staff (women were never allowed to wear trousers). He liked nothing better than to refuse to give interviews to journalists, but then to invite them to informal conversations when, whilst smoking a large cigar, he would surprise them by saying that he had never invested a penny of his own money in any of his enterprises.

Perhaps "l'Ambroise", as he was sometimes called, or "le President" as he was often called, symbolised the division between a powerful minority and the disenfranchised masses which characterised France. All Ambroise Roux's private interests were very special. He was a royalist who attended mass every January on the anniversary of Louis XVI's execution. He was a spiritualist who published a book on table-turning. He took three months' holiday every summer to cultivate his garden at Tregastel, on the granite coast of Brittany. He was someone who stood apart.

Ambroise Roux, businessman: born Piscop, France 26 June 1921; married Francoise Marion (one son, one daughter); died Montfort-L'Amaury, France 4 April 1999.