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Obituary: Claude Manceron

AT SCHOOL, I could never believe what I read in my very tedious, pictureless history textbooks, until my interest was awakened in fourth form French by one of our "set books", Jules Michelet's 19th- century life of Louis IX (Saint Louis) whose adventurous and admirable life (1215-70) culminated in canonisation by Pope Boniface VIII. I believed every word of it. Part of my fascination sprang from the initial difficulties I experienced in reading the text, then from my gradual realisation that I was not just understanding it, but also enjoying the graceful literary style as well as the story. I wonder if fourth formers read such works today. I doubt it.

Claude Manceron, like President Mitterrand, the man in whose service many years of his life were spent, was also a fervent admirer of Michelet. His childhood was an enchanted one, in Brittany, where his father was a naval officer married to the romantic figure of Marie Mavrogordato, a penniless Greek princess.

Then, at the age of 11, Claude was struck down by poliomyelitis and had to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, thus depriving him of all formal education. But that proved a secret blessing. He developed a passion for reading, and his parents kept him well supplied with all kinds of books - poetry, biography, navigation manuals, works of science, novels of all kinds and above all history, in which his great favourite was Michelet.

Claude Manceron was an enthusiastic filmgoer too, and it was Abel Gance's great Napoleon (the 1934 sound version of the 1927 classic) that made him decide to become an historian.

Despite his handicap, Manceron was a man of formidable courage and great intellectual energy, with a passionate love of life and enthusiasm for everything he undertook. When he was only 17 he became an instructor to the handicapped at the Saint-Clement centre, where he worked all through the Occupation.

Though he was academically unqualified, he became a great teacher of the handicapped, bringing them all his knowledge of history, natural sciences, philosophy and literature. His teaching was that of a devoted fellow-sufferer, filled with emotion, imagination and humour, the qualities he was to transform into the literary rapture of his writings.

In 1956, he published his first book, a historical novel, A peine un printemps, about an event that was to occupy his writing life, the Hundred Days - Napoleon's all-too-brief return from Elba that was to end with Waterloo. It became an immense success with critics and readers, and Manceron decided to devote the rest of his life to writing. But though his novel had been a success, he felt that the form was not really suited to all he wanted to express about history. So he followed it with Tambour de Borodino (1959), Le dernier choix de Napoleon (1960), Napoleon reprend Paris (1965) and Austerlitz (1962), all lively, exhilaratingly vivid true historical happenings and characters.

Manceron also wrote historical biographies including one devoted to his friend and adviser, Cent mille voix par jour pour Mitterrand ("One Hundred Thousand Voices a Day for Mitterrand"), when the future president was the candidate of the Left for the Presidency - he was finally elected in 1981. He also wrote books on Beaumarchais and Mirabeau (1968 and 1969).

But Claude Manceron's greatest work was one he devised when he became editorial adviser to the publisher Robert Laffont in 1960. It was to be a multi-volume work, an enormous history of the Revolution as seen through the eyes and the words of an extensive dramatis personae of real people, all speaking in character and to the immediate historical point. In 1963 he planned a series of six volumes with the overall title of Les Hommes de la liberte, of which the first tome, Les Vingt ans du roi, appeared in 1973, followed almost annually by subsequent volumes until the fifth, Le Sang de la Bastille, in 1987.

An offshoot of this task was another massive work, a Dictionnaire biographique de la Revolution francaise (1989) which brings to startling life not only the main protagonists but also the less well-known, covering 500 names from d'Abancourt, who directed the 10 August resistance in the Tuileries, to Ysabeau, representative from Indre- et-Loire at the Convention nationale.

All this later work was made possible in the peace of the countryside with the collaboration of his wife Anne, a tireless researcher. But, like his idol Michelet's final monumental Histoire, Manceron's great sequence remained unfinished with the fifth volume, when he had to abandon the sheer physical labour of writing. Until 1995, he remained in his post at the Elysee, one of Mitterrand's most treasured friends and advisers. Claude Manceron remains a shining example of triumph over adversity, and of scholarship without pedantry. And totally believable.

Claude Manceron, historian: born Paris 5 February 1923; twice married, secondly to Ann Colson; died Rambouillet, France 23 March 1999.