Obituary: Maurice Couve de Murville

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MAURICE COUVE de Murville was for 10 years the foreign minister of Charles de Gaulle and the faithful executant of de Gaulle's eccentric foreign policies. "If only I were foreign minister," he is reported to have said when de Gaulle vetoed British entry into the European Economic Community. He was de Gaulle's last prime minister, for one year, before the General resigned in 1969.

Couve de Murville was born in Reims in 1907. Despite the aristocratic-sounding name his father was a lawyer from Bordeaux who acquired the title "de Murville" in 1925 and his family was a Protestant one. In 1930 he married Jacqueline Schweisguth (who paints under the name of Vera Fabre), of a powerful Protestant banking family (Banque de l'Union Parisienne and Banque Mirabaud). He was educated at the Lycee Carnot in Paris and studied literature and law at the University of Paris before taking a diploma in Political Science at the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques. He then began a blue-riband career, graduating first in his class at Inspection des Finances in 1930 and was a civil servant until 1943 as, amongst other things, financial attache in the Brussels embassy.

He was a member of the Franco-German armistice commission at Weisbaden, succeeding in preventing the Nazi control of French gold stocks. In September 1940 Marshal Petain's Finance Minister, Yves Bouthillier, had made him head of the Vichy external finance section. In this post he sat with the occupying authorities on the Armistice Commission in Wiesbaden. When Vichy dismissed a number of civil servants, Couve was forced into politics and he was one of the few Vichy high officials who left after the takeover of the Vichy zone in November 1942.

After the Allied landings in North Africa he fled to Algiers through Spain in May 1943 and joined de Gaulle's Resistance rival General Giraud. He became Financial Commissioner to de Gaulle's National Liberation Committee in June 1943, having moved to de Gaulle's side just before Giraud was evicted. However American opposition to Couve through Henry Morganthau (because of his Vichy past) may have caused de Gaulle to move him sideways into a less sensitive post in diplomacy.

At the Liberation in 1944 Couve resumed a professional diplomatic career, briefly as ambassador to Italy and as secretary-general for political affairs at the Quai d'Orsay. At that time he was close to the MRP leader Georges Bidault, and took part in the July 1946 Peace Conference and the Four Power Conference in March 1947 and was made delegate on the Advisory Council for Italy in 1949. At the French Foreign Office he helped to shape the French attitude to the new German Republic and the Saar.

In 1950 he became ambassador to Egypt, to Nato and to Washington in 1954 and in 1958 to Bonn - as he was widely known in both capitals he was well placed to negotiate on de Gaulle's behalf subsequently (Adenauer saw Couve as a "friend of Germany" and a believer in the Community). He was also an opponent of the Anglo-French Suez invasion and an early supporter of Algerian independence.

When de Gaulle returned to power in May 1958 he needed loyal technocrats to implement his new policies. Couve de Murville was made foreign minister and stayed for 10 years. In this post he was a servant rather than a creative adviser. Couve de Murville occasionally urged courses of action on de Gaulle (he may, for example, have tried to get de Gaulle to negotiate the Nassau offer of Polaris missile systems to France), and may have had doubts (on the "Fouchet plan", for example) but he was a valued confidant (as early as 1958 de Gaulle had informed him of his determination to quit Nato - probably in 1969). However he was responsible for applying a policy formulated by the Elysee and charged to ensure that the French Foreign Office (which de Gaulle suspected of being willing to compromise French interests) did what was required.

Notwithstanding his closeness to de Gaulle (they met regularly on Friday mornings) he frequently had to cover his own bemusement at de Gaulle's intentions: in the matter of Britain's entry into the Community, or his recognition of the People's Republic of China - this, he noted, was the General's "affaire personnelle".

Couve de Murville's role was a crucial one, nevertheless, because he became an almost permanent fixture of the changing diplomatic scene and he put his first-class mind and thorough knowledge of the issues to service in marathon negotiations along with his (admired and acknowledged) coolness under fire. In the Council of Foreign Ministers, which in the early 1960s was the supreme body of the European Community, Couve often played a decisive role when major issues - such as the agricultural policy - came up.

Although sometimes privately expressing reservations about de Gaulle's policies, he proved an able defender of the most controversial of them. Couve was the pacifier and lightning conductor for the more sensational of the General's foreign policy thunderbolts. De Gaulle was not interested in the details, however, nor constantly hurling thunderbolts, so that Couve de Murville had long periods of administrative stability in which to apply policy with some freedom - nowhere more so than in the EEC, where Couve mastered and dominated the portfolios from different French ministries in the early 1960s.

Couve's technical mastery was evident in the run-up to the Community crisis of July 1965 to May 1966 when France virtually boycotted the institutions. Couve, as chair of the Council of Ministers, managed the proceedings prior to the crisis and, whereas Giscard and Pisani negotiated in good faith, Couve did nothing to encourage a consensus and kept France free from entangling compromise proposals. Couve's view was that the crisis resulted from the failure of the Community to accept de Gaulle's Europe.

Although Couve was a backroom technocrat, and not a typical political glad-hander, de Gaulle required him to run for election in 1967 in the particularly ill-chosen constituency of the seventh arrondissement in Paris, where he faced the combative ward-heeler "Frederic-Dupont" and was comprehensively defeated. An English-speaker, but no anglophile, Couve's stiff demeanour was portrayed as English without the umbrella, which he had swallowed. Couve thought of resignation but remained at the Quai d'Orsay and he was briefly at the Ministry of Finances for two months in 1968 before the student "events of May". He was elected to the Assembly for the eighth constituency of Paris in the Gaullist landslide of June 1968.

After the 1968 elections de Gaulle made Couve Prime Minister, Pompidou having become too popular. In his opening declaration to the Assembly Couve set three objectives: education reform, partnership in industry, and regional and senate reform. His tenure was too brief and too embarrassed by the financial crisis resulting from May 1968 (a budget cut of Fr2bn was made - mostly from the nuclear force) for much to be said except that major measures were passed despite the ministerial and backbench squabbles and that he failed to establish an authority, a style or a following of his own. He was, however, quite popular in opinion polls.

When de Gaulle was defeated in the 1969 referendum and Pompidou was elected president he resigned. Pompidou had no place for such an unconditional supporter of the General and Pompidou took a different direction - devaluing the franc and negotiating British entry into the EC (Couve had spent 10 years keeping Britain out). His attempt to get back into the Assembly (his "substitute" had refused to step down) was an unhappy one: he was defeated by Michel Rocard, then in a leftist Marxist mode, in a by-election in the Yvelines in October 1969. However he was returned to the Assembly in 1973 and remained there until 1986 (he chaired the foreign affairs committee from 1973 to 1978).

Maurice Couve de Murville was, above all, a loyal servant of de Gaulle and he was given a handsome tribute in the General's memoirs both for his technical mastery of tangled arguments and faith in Gaullist France. On de Gaulle's resignation Couve associated himself with the fundamentalist "conservative" Gaullists like Jacques Vendroux in Presence et Action du Gaullisme and its parliamentary representatives L'Amicale Parlementaire, but he was a marginal figure in the Gaullist and neo-Gaullist parties and had neither the fire nor the following in the Gaullist movement of Michel Debre. He remained on the fringes of the Gaullist movement dedicated to the perpetuation of the General's work and thought.

Couve de Murville was the author of an unrevealing volume of memoirs: Une politique etrangere (1971).

Jacques Maurice Couve (Jacques Maurice Couve de Murville), politician and diplomat: born Reims, France 24 January 1907; French ambassador to Italy 1945, to Egypt 1950-54, to the US 1955-56, to Germany 1956-58; Director- General, Political Affairs, Foreign Office 1945-50; Minister of Foreign Affairs 1958-68; Minister of Finance 1968; Prime Minister 1968-69; President, North Atlantic Council 1967-68; Inspector General of Fiannce 1969; President, Foreign Affairs Committee of National Assembly 1973-81; married 1832 Jacqueline Schweisguth (three daughters); died Paris 24 December 1999.