Claude Cheysson: Outspoken politician who was famously 'handbagged' by Mrs Thatcher


Claude Cheysson was an unorthodox, self-confident and outspoken Foreign Minister during the 1980s in France's first socialist government in over 25 years. He openly criticised British and American foreign policy in the Middle East and supported Argentina during the Falklands conflict. As a result, he was a less than unanimous choice for the position of President of the European Commission when the post became vacant in 1984.

Elected president of France in May 1981, François Mitterrand wanted to establish a new direction for French foreign policy in Europe, as well as with America, the Middle East and developing countries. He therefore required experienced ministers, of whom there were few. Cheysson, already an accomplished administrator, having risen rapidly through the ranks of the civil service and having held a number of diplomatic positions, was the ideal candidate; he was appointed Minister for External Relations (his own name for the post of Foreign Minister).

His first job was to fly to Washington to reassure President Reagan that despite the appointment of a few Communist ministers to the cabinet, the new socialist government was "on-side" with America. He also helped to cement Franco-German relations by writing a key speech which Mitterrand gave in the German parliament after Helmut Kohl became Chancellor in 1982, an extraordinary lifeline at the time for a beleaguered Kohl.

Cheysson directed French diplomacy in his own style until 1984 and established himself as one of the most influential figures, but also the most controversial, during the Socialist's time in office. Described by his successor Laurent Fabius as "a courageous, brilliant, generous man and a diplomat beyond the usual norms", Cheysson quickly earned a reputation for being hard-working, diligent and an extensive traveller in his capacity as minister; but he also became known for embarrassing – and, on occasion, irritating – the President, who described him as "the least diplomatic of all the diplomatic corps." He was, none the less, seen as a huge asset.

Born into a wealthy Parisian family in 1920, Claude Cheysson attended the renowned private establishment, Collège Stanislas, where he demonstrated his intellectual prowess by gaining admission to two of France's most prestigious universities, the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Ecole Polytechnique.

Following the German invasion of France in May 1940, Cheysson fled to Africa, where he joined the 2nd Armoured Division of the Free French General, Philippe Leclerc, serving as a second lieutenant in the 12th Chasseurs d'Afrique Regiment. After landing in Normandy on 1 August 1944, the 2nd Armoured Division took part in the battle of the Falaise Pocket (12-21 August), before going on to liberate Paris.

After the war Cheysson attended the newly created graduate school for entry into the civil service, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, and entered the diplomatic service in 1948, becoming an attaché to the Commissariat for German and Austrian Affairs (1949-52), then a political advisor in French Indo-China (as Vietnam was then) in 1952. Further success came when he was appointed deputy and then head of Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France's office and cabinet, which, in 1956, led to a similar role within Alain Savary's department, where he became minister for Moroccan and Tunisian Affairs. He next became general-secretary of the Commission for Technical Co-operation in Africa (1957-62), before enjoying a spell as ambassador to Indonesia (1966-70).

In 1973 Cheysson was appointed as the French European Commissioner (Relations with the Third World), responsible for developing countries, and he took charge of development policy, co-operation, budgets and financial control. From 1977 until 1981 he took on the development portfolio, until Mitterrand called. Roy Jenkins commented that he had built up a semi-imperial role for himself as the distributor of Community beneficence throughout Africa.

Prone to speaking his mind, Cheysson made a number of blunders. After the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and with widespread mourning, he remarked that the Egyptian leader's death would remove an obstacle to the coming together of the Arab peoples. Another embarrassment was his support for Saddam Hussein when the Iraqi dictator deceived two of his son-in-laws into returning to Iraq, only to have them executed.

Cheysson believed it was the "normal" punishment for traitors, adding, "In France not long ago, traitors were put before a firing squad." He later opposed US-led sanctions imposed upon Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait, and was dismayed by Britain's complicity. "America has turned Saddam Hussein into the devil to justify its physical and military presence in the Middle East," he said.

He also became a strong supporter of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, based north of Paris, and their struggle for "freedom and democracy" against the country's hardline Islamic regime.

In 1984, Cheysson put forward his candidacy for the European Commission's presidency but it was famously "hand-bagged" by Mrs Thatcher, due largely to his stance on the Falklands War two years earlier, when he had demanded that France side with Argentina. France had huge commercial interests in Argentina, whose armed forces were equipped with French weapons, Mirages and Super-Etendards fighters, and Exocet missiles. Cheysson argued, however, that the military junta should be supported because the conflict was a "colonial war". Mitterrand snubbed him, reminding his cabinet that Britain had supported France in two World Wars and that it was France's duty to support Britain now.

Cheysson lost out, but another Frenchman, the country's Finance Minister Jacques Delors, was victorious. Cheysson rejoined the Commission with responsibility for Mediterranean policy and North-South relations (1985-89). He subsequently served as a Socialist MEP (1989-94), having joined the party in 1974.

Claude Cheysson, politician: born Paris 13 April 1920; Commander, Légion d'Honneur; Croix de Guerre (five times); Hon GCMG 1984; married firstly and secondly (two sons, one daughter), 1969 Danièle Schwarz (one son, two daughters); died Paris 15 October 2012