General Alain de Boissieu

Confidant of de Gaulle
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Alain Henri Paul Marie-Joseph de Boissieu Dean de Luigné, army officer: born Chartres, France 5 July 1914; Chief of Staff of the French Army 1971-75; married 1946 Elisabeth de Gaulle (one daughter); died Clamart, France 5 April 2006.

It was in 1941 that the Soviet government at last made a gesture towards General Charles de Gaulle and Free France. A number of French soldiers had escaped from the Germans and had taken refuge in Russia, where they were detained on account of the anomalous situation of the Vichy government in the Second World War. The decision was to send these soldiers to London, where de Gaulle was in exile, in order that they could continue to fight against Germany. Amongst them was a young lieutenant, Alain de Boissieu. This journey was to transform his life.

De Boissieu had trained as a cavalry officer, as befitting his aristocratic status, but he had gone on to specialise in tanks, and he was therefore acquainted with de Gaulle and his championing of this form of warfare. As such, de Gaulle chose him to be his special representative with General Philippe Leclerc in the West African campaign. De Boissieu became the recipient of confidential information, such as de Gaulle's decision, in 1943, that it should be Leclerc and the Free France second armoured division that should liberate Paris. He also got to know the more private de Gaulle. Thus he knew how depressed the General became when he learned that the British had invaded Madagascar without consulting him, in May 1942.

This intimacy became greater when in January 1946 de Boissieu married the General's daughter, Elisabeth. From then on he called the General "père" and assumed a particular importance in the family circle. Both he and his wife encouraged the General to continue his activities as a public figure, whilst at various times Madame de Gaulle wanted her husband to retire into private life.

De Boissieu's military career continued in different parts of France and of French Africa, although he always held himself at the disposal of his father-in-law. Thus in 1958 he was director of the military cabinet of Paul Delouvrier whom de Gaulle, when he resumed power, had appointed as his Delegate-General in Algiers. De Boissieu became Brigade-General in 1964, and Général de Division in 1968. From 1971 to 1975 he was a member of the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre, and from 1975 Grand Chancellor of the Légion d'honneur. After retirement his main activity was in cultivating and defending the memory of de Gaulle.

As a witness, de Boissieu was a valuable source of information. Thus, on a minor matter, he tells us how de Gaulle gave up smoking. He repeats the General's own words: "I announced that General de Gaulle had stopped smoking. After that announcement there could be no turning back." Sometimes he tells us a detail that de Gaulle omitted from his memoirs. During Nikita Khrushchev's visit to Paris in March 1960, at one point the Soviet leader moved close to his host and said confidentially, "We are white, you French and us", a revealing reference to his problems with Asiatic populations in the Soviet Union, and to the Chinese.

De Boissieu was also a participant in some of the events that he described. Thus in 1958 and 1959 he expressed doubts about de Gaulle's policies in Algeria. He was in closer contact with the army than was his father-in-law and thought quite highly of the commanding officer, General Maurice Challe.

On 22 August 1962, as he was on holiday at Colombey les Deux Eglises, he agreed to accompany the General on a one-day visit to Paris. On the journey home, travelling by road, they were ambushed at Petit Clamart, and it was a miracle that the General and Madame de Gaulle, de Boissieu and the chauffeur, were not even wounded in the hail of bullets. De Boissieu claimed that he told his parents-in-law, who were sitting in the back of the car, to bend down, and in this way they avoided being shot.

The most controversial incident in which de Boissieu took part was in May 1968, at the height of the student- inspired disorders and strikes. De Boissieu, who had a command in Mulhouse, was summoned to the Elysée in conditions of great secrecy. At about 10.30 on the morning of 29 May, he found his father-in-law in a state of acute depression, contemplating resignation.

Although the two accounts which de Boissieu has given of this meeting differ slightly, he maintains that it was he who gave courage to de Gaulle, assured him of the army's support and agreed with the idea that a rapid visit to the commander of French troops in Germany, General Jacques Massu, would be a useful manoeuvre, whilst providing further confirmation of military support for de Gaulle. Historians usually agree with this version rather than that given by Massu who claimed that it was he who gave courage to the pessimistic head of state.

From this event alone, one can tell how much de Gaulle owed to his son-in-law. He was ever present, always loyal. Within half an hour of the General's death in November 1970, de Boissieu was on the phone trying to locate Philippe de Gaulle. When Alain Poher, who had opposed de Gaulle's referendum, succeeded him as temporary President, de Boissieu hampered him in every way. And when François Mitterrand became President in May 1981, de Boissieu resigned as Chancellor of the Légion d'honneur. He would have nothing to do with the man who had made himself de Gaulle's enemy. In 1986 he thought of joining Pierre Debizet in a political movement which would resuscitate the true values of Gaullism, but he abandoned the idea quite rapidly.

Douglas Johnson

* Douglas Johnson died 28 April 2005