Obituary: Gabriel Delaunay

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT WAS one of the boasts of the Third Republic in France that it was possible for a man of humble origins to rise in society. The route was there, those with ability had only to take it. Gabriel Delaunay was an example of how it could be done. Some 12 years ago he published a novel, Le Petit Chouan, in which he described the life that he succeeded in leaving behind him.

He was born in 1907, in the small village of Sainte-Christine in the Vendee. His parents were very poor, working on land that was owned by a rich man. As soon as he was old enough, he worked alongside them and he always remembered how hard and difficult life was. He particularly remembered each 29 September, the cruellest day of the year, when the rent had to be paid to the landowner. This was the anonymous life that he was meant to lead, but he was ambitious, and he had the good fortune to have a devoted village schoolteacher.

He won a scholarship to the primary school in Fontenay-le-Comte, and then to the secondary school in Fontenay-le-Centre. He won admission to a teacher's training college. And then he prepared for university degrees on his own, qualifying in history and geography, and eventually succeeding in the competitive examination of the agregation. Delaunay was surely entitled to boast: he did this without attending a single university lecture.

In 1939 he was teaching at the lycee at Bordeaux and as a lieutenant in the reserve he was mobilised immediately. He took part in the battle of the Ardennes and then in the fighting retreat towards Bergerac. During this last episode he was decorated with the Legion d'Honneur by General Weygand.

He returned, after demobilisation, to the Lycee Montaigne in Bordeaux. But both he and his wife, Alice, who was the only woman inspector of education in the region, listened to de Gaulle speaking from London, and determined to resist. In October 1940 Delaunay set up a group, calling itself "Liberation". But their numbers remained very small.

The history of the resistance in Bordeaux is complex. The commissaire de police, Pierre-Napoleon Poinsot, worked very closely with the Gestapo (he was shot at the Liberation) and he employed a number of double agents, one of whom, Genevieve Sauveneix, gave away a whole resistance cell organised by two doctors. Another resistance network was established by Claude Arnould, who went to London in the summer of 1940, but refused to serve under de Gaulle. With the help of Sir Stewart Menzies of MI6 he set up a large Catholic, and some said Petainist organisation, called Jade-Amicol. The Communist Pierre Rebiere, in his violent activities against the Germans, found support from the Spanish refugees present in Bordeaux.

Delaunay believed that it was because of an indiscretion by someone in the lycee that he was arrested and interrogated by Poinsot and the Gestapo. He was released because these authorities did not believe him to be a Communist, which is perhaps an indication of the way in which the Resistance was understood. But in April a number of arrests bought danger back to Delaunay and he took refuge in the open spaces of the Landes.

His resistance group was affiliated to Liberation-Nord and eventually joined the MUR (Movements unis de la Resistance). Delaunay took the code- name Merlin, and was particularly active after the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944. The main task then was to delay the Germans in every way, sabotaging the railways, blocking the roads, removing signposts. Delaunay became the leader of the MUR and describes the incredible confusion that reigned as Bordeaux was liberated. The retreating Germans inflicted heavy casualties, the different resistance groups forgot each other and individuals, even amongst the more disciplined Communists, had accounts to settle.

All these details emerged at the trial of Maurice Papon earlier this year, when the former secretary- general of the Gironde department during the occupation was tried for crimes against humanity. Papon endeavoured to prove that he had supported the resistance, and claimed to possess proof that he had been associated with the Jade-Amicol group, although other groups regarded the organisation as not representative of the Resistance. An attempt was made to elect a Senator Caille as President of the Departmental Committee of the Liberation, although he had voted in favour of Petain in 1940 and was never "tres resistant" as Delaunay put it. It was Delaunay who was made president instead.

When General de Gaulle's representative Gaston Cusin arrived in Bordeaux in May 1944, relations between him and Delaunay became difficult on the subject of Papon. Delaunay wanted him to be dismissed as someone who had collaborated with Vichy. Cusin, faced with the confusion amongst the resistance and possibly influenced by claims that Papon had helped the Resistance, decided to support him and had him promoted to be Prefect of the Landes.

Delaunay protested in 1944. And in February 1998 he wanted to testify against Papon, but ill-health prevented him from attending the courtroom in Bordeaux. He issued a statement recalling his protestations, showing that he had lost none of his bitterness.

He himself was appointed Prefect to the Loit-et-Cher in January 1945, to the Puy-de-Dome in 1946, and to the Basses-Pyrees in 1948. He then moved into a different sphere of administration, becoming head of Radiodiffusion-Television Francaise in 1957. But he stayed there only a short time after the return of de Gaulle to power in 1958. He then accepted the post of Prefect of the Gironde, in Bordeaux. Possibly he saw this as his revenge on Papon.

Douglas Johnson

Gabriel Delaunay, teacher, resistance leader and administrator: born Sainte-Christine, France 30 April 1907; married (two children); died Bordeaux, France 5 August 1998.