Francois-Xavier Ortoli: First French president of the EC

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The Independent Online

Franois-Xavier Ortoli, politician: born Ajaccio, France 16 February 1925; Minister of Works 1967-68, of Education 1968, of Finance 1968-69, of Industrial and Scientific Development 1969-72; President, European Commission 1973-76, Vice-President 1977-84; Prsident Directeur Gnral, Total 1984-90; married 1945 Yvonne Calbairac (one son, three daughters); died Paris 29 November 2007.

Somewhat surprisingly, in 1973 Franois-Xavier Ortoli, Minister for Industrial and Scientific Development in the government of Jacques Chaban-Delmas, was plucked out to be the first ever French president of the European Commission.

Among his many achievements, on his watch, was the setting up of the European Monetary System with the "ecu", the father of the euro, as its currency. Ortoli had worked on this concept for many years and was immensely pleased that it came to fruition during his time as president; it was on this account that very unusually, after his term expired, he spent two terms as vice-president responsible for economic and financial affairs.

He was extremely constructively loyal to his British successor as president of the Commission, Roy Jenkins (later Lord Jenkins of Hillhead); it is inconceivable otherwise that Ortoli would have been given an honorary doctorate by Oxford University in 1975 and made an Honorary Fellow of Worcester College in 1991.

Ortoli was born in Ajaccio in 1925 to a prominent Corsican family. His father was a servant of the French empire, working in what was the jewel of colonial France, the beautiful city of Hanoi. As a young man, Ortoli took part in guerrilla attacks on the Japanese occupiers. In 1944, he went on an operation from Hanoi a thousand miles into Japanese-occupied China. He had become an explosives expert, attacking bridges and railway lines.

When the French were fleetingly restored in Vietnam, Ortoli, having been awarded the Croix de Guerre (military division), was given a place on the law course at Hanoi University. It was his military record as much as his academic achievement, he told me later, that then gained him entrance to the Ecole Nationale d'Administration in Paris. He thus became one of the lite "narques", the name given to graduates of the school. This was the key to a glittering career. At the age of 33, he became the youngest ever director of the European Commission's internal market.

Gaining the attention of Georges Pompidou, Charles de Gaulle's prime minister, Ortoli was made head of a think-tank for forward planning. In 1967 Pompidou made him Minister of Works, and then Education. In his own right Ortoli was elected a deputy for the city of Lille. Pompidou's successor, Maurice Couve de Murville, promoted him to be Finance Minister. For three years, 1969-72, he was Chaban-Delmas's Minister for Industrial and Scientific Development and could claim to be one of the fathers of the hugely successful French nuclear power programme. By this time Pompidou was French president, and proposed Ortoli for the presidency of the European Commission.

Whenever I went with European Parliament colleagues to see the president of the Commission, it was our understanding that he would speak slowly in French, and we would speak slowly in English. He was very apologetic about his command of English, but this did not prevent him, as a hobby, translating Baudelaire into English. How he found time to do this, combining it with the active leadership as president, 1984-90, of the huge oil company Total, I cannot imagine. But his energy and drive were Napoleonic.

Tam Dalyell