Obituary: Alain Poher

Click to follow
In Julien Duvivier's classic film Un Carnet de Bal, Raimu plays the part of a man who, when young, wanted to be President of the Republic. Years afterwards, when the film discovers him in his rural domain where he seems to rule over all that he surveys he reflects: "I'm President of everything, except the Republic." Alain Poher never had such early, flamboyant ambitions, but by 1969 he had been President of many institutions.

Having worked in the private office of the Minister for Finance, Robert Schuman, in 1946 and having been elected to the upper house of the Parliament, then known as the Conseil de la Republique, he served for a short period as under- secretary for Finance in the government of Henri Queuille in 1948. He then began his European career, being responsible for German and Austrian affairs from 1948 to 1950, and acting as the French representative on the International Authority for the Ruhr 1950-52. He became President of the Transport Commission in the Coal-Steel Assembly and President of the Planning Commission for the Common Market.

In the meantime he was President of the Social Catholic party (the Mouvement Republicain Populaire) in the Council of the Republic and later, when it became the Senate. He was elected a member of the European Parliament for 1958, and was its President from 1966 to 1969. He had been elected mayor of Ablon-sur-Seine (his birthplace) in 1945 and continued to hold that position until 1977. In 1968 he was elected President of the Association of Mayors of France, and also in 1968 was elected President of the Senate. In June 1969 General de Gaulle resigned and automatically Alain Poher became the acting President of the Republic (President par interim). But he decided to put himself forward for election, in the hope of being elected President for seven years. This would be, after all, the ultimate Presidency.

Looking back at this episode it is easy now to see that Poher was not of the same stuff as other Presidents of the Fifth Republic. He was a modest man, of humble origins, who had studied law and engineering (at the Ecole des Mines) and who intended to follow his father's profession, that of an engineer. He was attracted to politics because he believed very sincerely in two principles. The one was that France needed the social reforms that were put forward by the new political party, the Social Catholics; the other was that in order to avoid a third world war there needed to be some unification of Europe that would bring France and western Germany together. These simple ideas he expressed to his electors. They agreed with him; he spoke as they did, he looked as they did (except that his suits began to appear increasingly old- fashioned as time went by).

Poher's election to the Presidency of the Senate had been something of a surprise. Relations between this House and de Gaulle had been very bad from 1962, when Gaston Monnerville, then President, had violently opposed the General's plans for the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage. De Gaulle publicly snubbed Monnerville at President Coty's funeral in November 1962 and had ceased to have any relations with the Senate. Monnerville was persuaded to stand down in 1968 but it seemed impossible to find a successor.

Poher stood on the third ballot and was chosen largely because of his European commitments and experience. It was ironic that no sooner had he assumed his position and started the process of reconciliation between the Luxembourg Palace and the Elysee, that de Gaulle launched his referendum. An important part of this proposed reform was to change the whole nature of the Senate. Poher naturally was one of the leaders of the opposition to this referendum. When it failed de Gaulle resigned. Poher was one of the victors in this battle.

Was he not then well placed to replace de Gaulle? The argument was two- fold. De Gaulle had lost the referendum because of the defection of the centre right parties. Poher could rally this section of the voters to support him. And secondly, opinion about Georges Pompidou was divided. For some, Pompidou meant the continuation of Gaullism and was therefore to be opposed; for others, he had betrayed Gaullism by having presented himself to the country as the natural successor to de Gaulle, and was therefore not worthy of support.

The first opinion polls suggested that Poher had more support than anyone else. De Gaulle, then admiring the Irish countryside and pretending to have no interest in the election, was horrified at this. It was France turning back to mediocrity, he is reported to have said, in a clearly unfair remark. But many commentators said that the election of Poher would be a return to the Fourth Republic, or more dangerous still, it would inaugurate a long period of uncertainty. Although Poher came second in the first ballot (with only 460,000 votes more than the Communist candidate) it was clear that he stood no chance in the second ballot, and he might have done well to have withdrawn. The second ballot gave more than 58 per cent of the votes to Pompidou, and a weak 42 per cent to Poher.

It speaks highly of Poher that this debacle did not ruin him politically, although he had had to put up with many journalistic sarcasms (one accused him of being "puffed out with modesty"). He remained as the President of the Senate until 1992. With the death of President Pompidou in 1974 he once again became President of the Republic par interim, but was not tempted to seek election. He achieved fame and respect as a defender of the Senate, particularly after 1981 when the Socialist government attempted to introduce reforms which would have reduced its influence and changed its nature. As a constitutional expert he also intervened on matters which did not directly affect his role as President of the Senate. Thus he opposed those who wished to make the Consitutional Council the equivalent of the American Supreme Court.

Naturally someone who held power for so long was accused of being cunning, devious and self-centred. Perhaps the image that he liked to present of himself as a simple citizen, whose hobby was stamp-collecting, was exaggerated.

Alain Emile Louis Marie Poher, politician: born Ablon-sur-Seine 17 April 1909; President of the European Parliament 1966-69; President of the French Senate 1968-92; married 1938 Henriette Tugler (one daughter); died Paris 9 December 1996.