Charles Pasqua: Resistance fighter who went into politics and became a leading and controversial figure of the French Right

In the 1970s and 1980s he was Jacques Chirac’s right-hand man

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Lunching with Charles Pasqua was like lunching with a cross between Al Capone and Maurice Chevalier. He was funny and he was scary. He had the gravelly southern French accent and hooded eyes of a village boss in a Marcel Pagnol movie or a character in a pastis advertisement. His first job was, in fact, as a Ricard salesman.

Pasqua, a former French interior minister who has died of a heart attack at the age of 88, was wonderfully quotable. One of his sayings is a classic of French politics – or politics anywhere. “Promises are only binding on those who believe in them.” Another Pasqua-ism remains sharply topical in 2015: “Democracy ends where the interest of the state begins.”

Charles Pasqua entered public life with a gun in his hand at the age of 15 as a Resistance fighter in the Second World War. He went on to be a broodingly seminal figure on the authoritarian Right of French politics from the 1960s to the 1990s. He was a founder and leader of the Service d’Action Civique, (SAC), the private police force of President Charles de Gaulle. It was Pasqua who masterminded an immense reactionary counter-demonstration on the Champs-Elysées against the student revolt of May 1968.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he was Jacques Chirac’s right-hand man and enforcer until they quarrelled over Europe. He stuck the knife in “Le Grand Jacques” by supporting Edouard Balladur’s rival centre-right candidacy in the 1995 presidential election. Chirac won.

Pasqua was Nicolas Sarkozy’s mentor until Le Petit Nicolas betrayed him in 1983 by running for, and winning, the mayorship of France’s wealthiest town, Neuilly-sur-Seine. A few months earlier Pasqua had been best man at Sarkozy’s first (of three) weddings. It was clearly understood that the ambitious Pasqua, aged 56, not the unknown Sarkozy, aged 28, would be the next mayor of Neuilly.

The young Sarko outmanoeuvred one of the most feared men in French politics. Pasqua was impressed, rather than resentful. After all, promises are only binding on those who believe in them.

In the early 1990s, after he led a Eurosceptic revolt against the Maastricht treaty, Pasqua was touted as a presidential candidate who could unite anti-Europeans of left and right. Nothing came of it. It is, in fact, startling to record that Pasqua only held ministerial office twice and for a total of less than five years. He was an important national figure but much of his power lay in local politics – and the shadows.

He was a Corsican, born over-the-water on the Côte d’Azur, who built a political and money-making machine in some of the richest, and poorest, suburbs of Paris. He was a French sovereigntist, or Eurosceptic, with xenophobic leanings who built a network of doubtful politico-commercial dealings in Africa.

He spent the last years of his life fighting a series of criminal allegations. He was convicted of illegal campaign financing in 2009 and given an eight-month suspended jail sentence. He was cleared of corrupt misuse of a United Nations oil-for-food programme for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and organising arms sales to Angola in contravention of a UN embargo.

Charles Pasqua was born in Grasse, near Nice, in 1927. His grandfather was a Corsican shepherd. His father followed a well-worn path for Corsican expatriates and became a policeman “on the continent”. In 1942, Charles joined his father in the Resistance under the code name “Prairie”. In 1947 he married a French-Canadian woman, Jeanne Joly, who survives him. They had one son, Pierre-Philippe, who died five months before his father.

In 1952, after training as a lawyer, Pasqua joined Ricard as a travelling drinks salesman. By the time he left in 1967 to found his own drinks import business, he had become deputy head of the company.

In 1968, he was elected to the National Assembly from Hauts-de-Seine, the western inner suburbs of greater Paris. This was the beginning of a great centre-right, politico-financial empire, founded partly on the wealth generated by the La Défense skyscraper ghetto in the 1970s.

Pasqua was an early supporter of Jacques Chirac. When the future President split the Gaullist movement and founded the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR) in 1976, Pasqua became deputy secretary general. He organised Chirac’s first, unsuccessful, run for the presidency in 1991.

In 1986, the Socialist President François Mitterrand lost his parliamentary majority and appointed Chirac as his right-wing Prime Minister. Mitterrand refused to have “that terrible Monsieur Pasqua” as interior minister (home secretary). Chirac insisted.

As interior minister from 1986-88 and then again under the Prime Ministership of Edouard Balladur in 1993-95, Pasqua became an icon of the Right and a hate figure on the Left.

He was widely blamed for the death in a police baton charge in December 1986 of a 22-year-old left-wing demonstrator, Malik Oussekine. He pushed through a law – since abandoned – weakening the citizenship rights of the children of foreign parents born on French soil.

He masterminded the sting which led to the arrest of the master-terrorist Carlos the Jackal in 1994. He flirted with the idea of an alliance between the traditional right and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s xenophobic Front National, something that Chirac vetoed.

After his quarrel with Chirac over Europe in the early 1990s, Pasqua became an outright Europhobe and sovereigntist, founding his own, unsuccessful, anti-European party. After backing Balladur, the wrong horse, in the 1995 presidential election, he never played a central role in French politics again.

Whatever one made of his politics, Pasqua was a rare island of authenticity and humour in the smart-suited ranks of French politicians trained in the finishing schools of the administrative elite. At the lunch with him I attended in 1997, he was asked a mischievous question by a German journalist. His answer lasted for a minute but did not contain a single word.

His face, crumpled at the best of times, went though a gymnastic display of astonishment, puzzlement, uncertainty, anger and amusement. “My mime is my answer,” he said finally.

Charles Pasqua résistant and politician: born Grasse, near Nice 18 April 1927; married Jeanne Joly (one son deceased); died Suresnes, France 29 June 2015.