Obituary: Roger Frey

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The Independent Online
Roger Frey, French politician: born Noumea, New Caledonia 11 June 1913; President of the Constitutional Council 1974-83; married (two children); died 13 September 1997.

As Minister of the Interior in France from 1961 Roger Frey had the reputation of being an easy man in cabinet meetings, presided over by de Gaulle, accepting the President's criticisms with a smile, and occasionally whispering irreverent pleasantries into the ear of an embarrassed colleague. But publicly he was a hard and secretive minister.

His justification was that these were times of desperate danger. Algerian nationalists had for long been fighting the battle of Paris. They were not disarmed by the referendum of January 1961 whereby 75 per cent of the French population in France had accepted the independence of Algeria. French police were attacked (64 were killed between 1958 and 1962), the Algerians fought amongst themselves, and the Secret Army of the French settlers in Algeria - who were opposed to independence - began to act as a terrorist group within France.

The government therefore decreed that a curfew should come into force forbidding Algerians to be on the streets in Paris and its suburbs after 8.30pm.

The Algerian nationalists demonstrated against this treatment on 17 October 1961. Twenty thousand tried to converge on the centre of Paris. They were attacked by some 9,000 police and security guards. The Ministry of the Interior announced that two Algerians had been killed. But soon other figures were produced suggesting that 60 or 70 had been killed. This was denied by the minister. The figure remains uncertain but it seems likely that more than 200 Algerians perished. Apparently, Frey remained unmoved.

At the beginning of 1962 the Secret Army (the OAS) multiplied its terrorist attacks and, in an attempt to blow up Andre Malraux's house, a four-year- old girl was badly injured in the face. Her photograph deeply moved the French public and the trade unions, claiming that the government was not doing enough to protect people, organised a massive demonstration. The minister forbade this. But on 8 February 1962 some 8,000 trade unionists tried to demonstrate in Place de la Bastille. The police attacked them violently and eight demonstrators were killed as they tried to take refuge in the metro station Charonne. Half a million people followed their coffins when they were buried on 13 February.

Frey was held responsible for the events (along with Maurice Papon, the Prefect of Police, who had been an officer under Vichy and who is to be tried next month for crimes against humanity committed in 1942 and 1944). He blamed Algerian nationalists for October 1961 and the Communist Party for February 1962, although later claiming that both incidents had been provoked by the OAS.

Beyond the official police he made use of special groups. There were the "barbouzes" (the bearded ones) and the section d'action civique, both of which used unorthodox methods to hunt out those who were considered to be the enemies of the Republic.

Frey was accused of making France into a police state. He claimed that France was in danger of civil war. He said that the OAS had already worked out who was to be in their government and in the Council of Ministers he joked with de Gaulle about who would take his place.

On 29 October 1965 Ben Barka, a leading opposition figure to the King of Morocco and a third world leader, was stopped by two French policemen as he was about to enter the Brasserie Lipp on the Boulevard Saint Germain. He got into their car and was driven to the villa of a well-known ex-criminal in Fontenay-le-Vicomte. He was never seen again and he was certainly murdered.

What was the role of Roger Frey and the French police and secret service in all this? This was a mystery that was never cleared up. It led to widespread criticisms of the government. De Gaulle sharply accused Pompidou and Frey of not being effectively in charge of their administrations. But he took no further action. The incident brought Pompidou closer to Frey.

In 1967 he became Minister of State, responsible for relations with parliament. Two years later he was unexpectedly consulted by de Gaulle about the forthcoming referendum. Should he postpone it for a fortnight, the General asked? Frey advised him not to. To postpone it would mean a great loss of prestige. De Gaulle resigned. But Frey believed that de Gaulle had never contemplated postponement. He therefore gave him the answer that he wished.

This was in keeping with Frey's view of de Gaulle. When he learned that Alain Peyrefitte, at that time Minister for Information, was keeping a record of his conversations with de Gaulle, he thought it a great joke. De Gaulle, he claimed, would say anything, would continually ask the same question, would frequently contradict himself. Conversation was the manner in which he made up his own mind.

But Frey was an unconditional admirer of de Gaulle. To the same Peyrefitte, much earlier, when he joined the Gaullist party, Frey said that his motto had to be that of the Jesuits who swore to follow the Pope like a corpse ("perinde ac cadaver"). Frey was proud of being a first-generation Gaullist. In a speech of 1960 he said that he had not joined de Gaulle two years before, but 20 years earlier. He had behind him, not the history of a political party, but the history of France.

Born in 1913 in New Caledonia, in 1940, Frey had joined the Gaullist forces in the Pacific. He later fought in Africa and in France, ending the war as a Lieutenant. From 1945 to 1946 he was sent by de Gaulle on a secret mission to India and to China, then in 1947 when de Gaulle founded his political party, the Rally of the French people, he became one of the leaders.

He kept his family interests in New Caledonian nickel, and, thanks to this and to his contacts with the Rothschilds, he was able to help de Gaulle keep his residence in the rue de Solferino which he would otherwise have been obliged to sell. During the Algiers crisis of 1958 which brought de Gaulle to power he went secretly to Algeria and worked in ways which still remain secret on behalf of the General.

Having established a record by being a minister for some 13 and a half consecutive years, Frey ended his career as President of the Constitutional Council from 1974 to 1983. He had been appointed by Pompidou, and he finished his term of office under Mitterrand. Under his direction the council became increasingly independent and concerned for human rights.

A mysterious man, subject to much suspicion and hostility, there are two things that one can safely say about him. He was courageous. And during the 1960s and 1970s he was the best-dressed man in French politics.