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Obituary: Roger Fressoz

BEHIND ITS constitutional facade of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, French political life remains rife with nepotism and financial shenanigans. Thankfully, the satirical weekly paper Le Canard Enchaine, France's answer to Private Eye, keeps a watchful eye over the misbehaviour of politicians and the business community.

Roger Fressoz, the journalist who in 1968 became the paper's editor, did more than most to expose various scandals. He quadrupled the paper's circulation, generated more debate and controversy than the rest of the French media put together and affected the results of several elections.

Born in the Savoie area of Eastern France in 1921, Fressoz was 30 when he joined Le Canard Enchaine; at the time it was struggling to sell 100,000 copies a week. Fressoz's arrival coincided with a period of great upheaval for the paper and France's stuttering Fourth Republic, with its short- lived coalition governments. Under the pseudonym Andre Ribaud, Fressoz added an investigative slant to what had mostly been a collection of satirical tracts, humorous pamphlets and cartoons. "For God's sake, let's have some facts!," he was fond of saying. Equally, the slightest innaccuracy drove him up the wall: "You have to understand that I take any cock-up personally, like a dagger going straight through my heart".

Le Canard became a thorn in the establishment's side, denouncing the French army's use of torture during the Algerian war of independence. Throughout the Sixties, De Gaulle's regal behaviour was lampooned in "La Cour" ("The Court"), a pseudo-historical column written by Fressoz. "Using an old-fashioned style enables you to be much more vicious. The subjunctive imperfect is more civilised and, the more polite and polished your style, the stronger the material can be," he explained.

He became deputy editor in 1963 and editor five years later. In his mission statement he declared:

Le Canard should act the court-jester, taunting the prince and his sycophantic courtiers, but also be the safeguard of the Republic, denouncing the excesses, the mistakes, the abuses of people in power in order to protect the average citizen.

De Gaulle's departure in 1968 saw Fressoz's column adopt the heading "La Regence" to report on Georges Pompidou. Subsequently, Le Canard played a major role in exposing Jacques Chaban Delmas's creative use of tax havens just as the mayor of Bordeaux had his sights trained on the Elysee. The French industrialist Marcel Dassault's tax returns were also gleefully published.

Following Pompidou's death in office, Valery Giscard d'Estaing acceded to the presidency in 1974. Ridiculed as "Le Chevalier d'Auvergne", he fell foul of Le Canard when he accepted a gift of jewels from the African head of state Jean Bedel Bokassa without declaring it. The ensuing furore undoubtedly contributed to Francois Mitterrand's election victory in 1981.

"Tonton" ("Uncle") Mitterrand instantly blotted his copybook with Le Canard by appointing his son as special adviser on African affairs. Fressoz also wasted no time in exposing the President's friendship with Rene Bousquet, a Petainiste who in 1942 had rounded up 13,000 Jews in Paris before handing them over to the Germans. In 1981, Le Canard had accused Maurice Papon of a similar offence, starting a lengthy investigation which led to Papon's eventual trial two years ago.

With such reporting zest and an impressive flair for scoops, Le Canard now regularly sells half a million copies and is a truly independent newspaper on a sound financial footing. However, Fressoz, who became chairman and managing director of the publication in 1970, eventually retired due to ill-health in 1992, although he was still a regular contributor.

Roger Fressoz, journalist, editor: born La Compote, France 30 October 1921; married (two daughters, two sons, and one daughter deceased); died 26 March 1999.