Obituary: Michel Crepeau

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The Independent Culture
ON THE afternoon of 23 March, Michel Crepeau rose to his feet in the French National Assembly and put a question to the Minister for Economic Affairs. All the other deputies waited expectantly. Crepeau was famous for his questions. With his nasal but strong voice, his long sentences filled with pointed subordinate clauses and his constant air of banter, he invariably caused laughter amongst the many and indignation amongst a targeted few.

This time he advised the minister not to reduce the interest rates on certain savings accounts and not to leave decisions on these matters to technocrats because they affected small savers. He accompanied this advice with a remark about the remarkable way in which money had circulated in the days of President Mitterrand, and this, coming from a supporter of the socialist government, caused hilarity amongst the opposition.

But when Crepeau had finished his question, as he sat down, he collapsed. He had suffered a severe heart attack. With the television cameras still working, amidst scenes of great confusion, he was given emergency treatment by those politicians present who were qualified doctors before being taken to the Cochin hospital. It was there that he died on 30 March.

At the time of his death, Crepeau was the leader of the group calling itself Radical, Citizen and Green, a small collection of deputies representing left-wing radicals, the Citizens' Socialist party and certain of the ecologists. Deputy for La Rochelle, he had been elected as a left-wing radical (Mouvement des Radicaux de Gauche).

In one sense, Crepeau was an "ancien" in French politics. He always saw himself as a Radical in the tradition of the party that dominated the Third Republic after 1901. His model was Edouard Herriot, who had been "the Republic in person". He came from the south-west, which had always been a Radical stronghold; he was a lawyer by profession; and, most important of all, he had a local power-base, having been mayor of La Rochelle for nearly 30 years.

But he was also a "moderne". He had supported Pierre Mendes France in his attempts to make the Radical party more conscious of the changing world around them. He quarrelled with Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber when he was leading the party in 1971, accusing him of "neo-Gaullism" and of a liking for hard-minded capitalism. He was determined that the Left should come to power and in 1972 he was co-founder of the Left Wing Radical group (with Robert Fabre, a pharmacist from the Aveyron department) and he was one of the strong supporters of the Joint Programme that was agreed between Communists, Socialists and Radicals to fight elections. He replaced Fabre in 1978 when Fabre quarrelled with the Communists.

But Crepeau did not believe that the left-wing Radicals should simply become Socialists. He claimed that the population living in the small provincial towns did not want this. They did not want dogmatic socialist ideas thrust down their throats, they did not want a Jacobian state where everything was decided in Paris and they did not believe that the population of France should be treated as if they were one identical mass.

Crepeau, in this Radical tradition, believed in the presentation of local interests, in gradual change, in a secular humanism that would promote the welfare of ordinary families. He wanted decentralisation and he feared the machinations of multi-national companies as much as he feared regulation from Brussels.

Therefore in the presidential elections of 1981 he announced that he was a candidate. In this way he would preserve the identity of his party. In the first ballot he got 2.2 per cent of the votes cast. He then announced that he supported Francois Mitterrand for the second ballot. In this way he maintained the existence of a "special relationship" between his Radicals and the triumphant Socialists.

He personally got his reward. He became Minister for the Environment in the first government of the new regime, which was a recognition of the interest that he had shown in ecological measures since he had become mayor of La Rochelle in 1979. There he had been the pioneer of roads that were for pedestrians only and of special motorless days in the town. He had some 400 bicycles specially painted and put at the disposition of the townsfolk (his enemies were able to say that many of them mysteriously disappeared). He experimented with heating by sunlight and he created a nucleus of lorries, cars and motor-bikes powered by electricity.

As mayor of La Rochelle he had to deal with the economic crisis arising from the closure of the naval ship-building yards. His policy was mainly to attract tourists. Since the French navy no longer commissioned new ships, Crepeau started on a 10-year project to build an 18th-century boat, a reproduction of the Hermione which took Lafayette to America. He also had as a firm line of policy to prevent La Rochelle from growing too big. He sought always to co-operate with the other towns of the region, such as Poitiers, Angouleme and Niort. Only in his determination to have a university in La Rochelle has friction occurred with Poitiers.

Crepeau had other ministerial posts under Mitterrand, but was dropped after 1988. He disapproved of Mitterrand's support for the doubtful personage of Bernard Tapie as Minister in charge of towns. In 1995 he hit the headlines with a municipal order forbidding any begging in La Rochelle.

As was always the case with Michel Crepeau, this order received great support and was immediately initiated by mayors in other towns of the south (Pau, Tarbes, Perpignan, Valence). But it also aroused widespread condemnation.

Michel Crepeau, lawyer and politician: born Fontenay-le-Comte, France 30 October 1930; died Paris 30 March 1999.