Pierre Messmer

De Gaulle's defence minister who served less happily as Prime Minister under Pompidou
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The Independent Online

Pierre Auguste Joseph Messmer, colonial administrator and politician: born Vincennes, France 20 March 1916; Governor of Mauritania 1952; Governor of Ivory Coast 1954-56; High Commissioner, Republic of Cameroon 1956-58; High Commissioner, French Equatorial Africa 1958; High Commisioner, French West Africa 1958-59; Minister of the Armed Forces 1960-69; Minister of State in charge of Departments and Territories Overseas 1971-72; Prime Minister 1972-74; Member of the European Parliament 1979-80; married 1947 Gilberte Duprez (deceased), 1999 Christiane Terrail; died Paris 29 August 2007.

Pierre Messmer had several lives, and he lived each one to the full. From October 1937, when he began his military service, until December 1945, he was a soldier. Then he became an administrator of the French colonies. From 1960 until 1969, he was General Charles de Gaulle's Minister of Defence. He started a political life, being elected deputy for Sarrebourg in 1968 (a seat that he was to hold for 20 years) and being appointed Minister for Overseas France by President Georges Pompidou in 1971.

Another life began in July 1972 when Messmer became Prime Minister of France. He held this position until the death of Pompidou in April 1974, and although Messmer's name was mentioned as a possible President of the Republic he never seriously aspired to this position. His life became dominated by local politics. He was mayor of Sarrebourg from 1971 to 1989, conseiller-gé*éral for the Moselle from 1970 to 1982 and a member, for a time president, of the regional council of Lorraine until 1992. He presided over the Fondation Charles de Gaulle and the Association Georges Pompidou, as well as the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques.

When, at the beginning of 1999, President Jacques Chirac wished to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Fifth Republic, he brought together 11 of the 12 surviving Prime Ministers (Maurice Couve de Murville being absent). Along with Jacques Chaban-Delmas, Messmer was older than the others by many years, but everyone remarked upon his energy and vigour.

Pierre Messmer came from a notably patriotic family. His grandfather, a peasant in Alsace, opted to be French in 1871 when Germany annexed Alsace and Lorraine. He joined the French army in Algeria and then became the driver of a horse-drawn omnibus in Paris. He sent for a peasant-girl in Alsace and married her. Their son became a successful manager in business, and their grandson, Pierre, born in 1916, inherited the seriousness and the patriotism of his family.

On 17 June 1940, as an army lieutenant, Pierre Mesmer listened to Marshal Philippe Pétain explaining on the radio why France must accept defeat. He immediately refused to consider this and made his way to Marseilles where he, and others, succeeded in hijacking an Italian boat and making their way to Liverpool. From there he travelled to St Stephen's House, in London, where he was interviewed briefly by General de Gaulle. Messmer was asked to join the Foreign Legion and hence he was part of an expedition against Dakar, and then the victories of Bir Hakein and El Alamein.

The name of Captain Messmer appears in the Public Record Office in a document of 25 April 1944, when he is named as being on the staff of General Marie-Pierre Koenig, who had been appointed by de Gaulle as the commander of French forces. The British had some reservations about General Koenig. Messmer might well have shared these since, after the Liberation of Paris, he quickly tired of being Koenig's aide-de-camp, objecting to the endless ceremonies that this involved. He stood very much apart from the celebrations, disliking how the so-called heroes of the Resistance took their revenge on supposed collaborators. The best moment of the Liberation for him was going to the Boulevard Saint Michel and seeing his mother and brother, both of whom had just been released from prison. The Germans had put them there because they had given shelter to an escaped prisoner of war.

Messmer volunteered for service in the Far East and was sent to Indo-China. After being taken prisoner by the Viet Minh and escaping, he found himself involved in discussions between the same Viet Minh opponents of French rule and the French government. He worked closely with Marius Moutet, the Minister for Colonies, and later he was chef de cabinet to Emile Bollaert, from March 1947 to October 1948, as High Commissioner for the Republic. It was a depressing experience. A minister like Georges Bidault would state that France must preserve Indo-China as a French possession without considering how this would effectively be done. Messmer prophesied that the affair of Indo-China would be for the Fourth Republic what the Mexican expedition had been for the Second Empire.

His experience as a colonial administrator was better in other territories. From 1950 he was the chief officer in the desert of Mauritania, ruling an area half the size of France with a population of 60,000, mainly nomads. From 1954 he encountered a different sort of Africa when he became Governor of the Ivory Coast and a different sort of African when he met the leader of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain, the redoubtable Félix Houphouët-Boigny.

But he approved of them both. He believed in the modern Africa and in de-colonisation, a policy that he followed when he became chief adviser to Gaston Deferre, Minister for Overseas France in the socialist government of Guy Mollet in 1956, or when he became the last High Commissioner for the Republic in Equatorial Africa and then in West Africa. It was on the evening of 22 December 1959 that he left the government palace of Dakar, on foot. This, he declared, was the symbol of a colonial era that was ending for France.

Messmer had then decided to start a new life and to enter private business, in the employ of Guy de Rothschild. But General de Gaulle put an end to this. In February 1960 Messmer was summoned to the Elysée to hear the General say to him, "I have decided to make you minister in charge of the armies. Go home and talk to no-one. I wish to make the announcement officially."

Messmer obeyed. He was to be Minister for nine years. He attended nearly 450 Council of Ministers meetings presided over by de Gaulle. He had to advise the General about the army and Algeria; he had to discuss what role the army would play in the student revolts of 1968; he had to adapt military policy to France becoming a nuclear power. Throughout this period he retained the full confidence of de Gaulle, who seriously considered making him Prime Minister in place of Pompidou, although finally choosing Couve de Murville.

Messmer was a devoted Gaullist. He was a disciplined soldier who would not engage in manoeuvres displeasing to de Gaulle. But this does not mean that he was a yes-man. All that we know suggests that the advice that he gave de Gaulle was always sound. He never believed that Algeria could be kept French by force of arms, but when officers revolted he recommended that medicine rather than surgery should be the remedy. In particular he urged de Gaulle not to insist upon the execution of General Edmond Jouhaud, one of the unsuccessful "putschists" of April 1961. In a famous article in the Revue de défense nationale he outlined the principles of France's defence policy once France had the nuclear bomb.

His experience as Prime Minister under Pompidou was not so happy. He was called to this position because of disagreements between the President and his first Prime Minister, Jacques Chaban-Delmas. Messmer was given the job of winning the elections of 1973 (which he did, with a reduction of the majority) and had then to deal with a series of problems, such as the law on abortion and the economic problems arising from the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Pompidou's declining health, and his failure to explain what was happening, caused Messmer much difficulty.

The President's death in April 1974 reawakened the conflicts amongst the Gaullists and the right-wing. The presence of three presidential candidates, Chaban-Delmas, Edgar Faure and Giscard D'Estaing was an acute embarrassment. It was therefore suggested that Messmer, who had founded the association "Présence du Gaullisme" in 1969, would be the appropriate candidate. He accepted, on condition that the other three should voluntarily withdraw. Chaban-Delmas refused. Therefore Messmer stood down. He had, he said, no ambition to be President. He afterwards revealed in his autobiography Après tant de batailles ("After so many battles", 1992) that he had not enjoyed his period as Prime Minister.

He continued to play a role in politics. He supported Jacques Chirac in the presidential campaign of 1981. He let it known that he was opposed to the Treaty of Maastricht and to any idea of a federal Europe. He also intervened willingly to protect institutions that had been a part of his life, such as the Foreign Legion. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1999. The same year, he was married, secondly, to Christiane Terrail, when both were aged 83.

Douglas Johnson

* Douglas Johnson died 28 April 2005