OBITUARIES:Andre Frossard

For the last 30 years or so many readers of Le Figaro, both British and French, have begun the day by looking first at the foot of the front page, where Andre Frossard's column was to be found. "Cavalier Seul" as it was called (which can perhaps b e translated as "Going it Alone") became the French equivalent of what used to be a British institution, the Times fourth leader, but it was never much longer than a hundred words.

Always sharp and direct, invariably witty, often ironic, frequently hostile and invariably personal, Frossard's articles were, somehow inevitably, described as "typically French", a description that he disliked, in spite of having written a book called Excusez-moi d'etre francais (1992). Also he liked to single out quotations from French authors which he thought explained France. Thus, in one of his last pieces, he wrote of Anatole de Monzie, a largely forgotten politician of the Third Republic whom he surprisingly described as talented, erudite and a great orator, and quoted him as saying, "One must never forget that if the French adore revolutions, they are horrified by change." Why quote this in January 1995? Is it true? One remembers Frossard's fewsentences for much longer than the important and well- informed articles that surrounded them.

Frossard's delight was to surprise. And he was well-placed to do this. His grandmother was Jewish, his mother a Lutheran Protestant, his father, Ludovic-Oscar Frossard, an official atheist who was first secretary of the Communist Party and later a socialist minister.

The young Frossard discovered religion when he entered a chapel to look for a friend in July 1935. This experience has often been compared to Claudel's vision, much earlier, in Notre Dame. But Claudel turned his work and himself into a cathedral. Frossard never forgot that his chapel, now invisible, was in the Rue d'Ulm, a street dominated by the Ecole Normale Superieure.

His conversion was always individual, allowing him to adopt different attitudes, even to see matters as a joke. "I was as surprised," he wrote, "to find myself a Catholic when I left the chapel as I would have been to find myself a giraffe when I left the zoo." There is an apostle who has been named "doubting"; Frossard would have been called "comic".

It is tempting to suggest that his wartime experience was as important for him as was his religious conversion. Joining the Resistance early, he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and put under the control of Klaus Barbie in the fort of Montluc, near Lyons. He was one of only seven who survived. He described what it was to be tortured and to visualise himself and his companions as being already dead. He was a witness at the long-delayed trial of Barbie and explained how he had come to understand what was a crime against humanity. He was a Catholic who believed in the rights of man and this applied to the Algerians who were tortured in the 1950s, a torture that he denounced in the right-wing paper L'Aurore.

A Gaullist, Frossard wrote an ironic article on de Gaulle entitled "Napoleon the Other" in 1946. This brought him into personal contact with the General, whom he claimed had brought a spiritual element into French life. When de Gaulle died Frossard claimed that the French had given to him the only possible response to such a great man: ingratitude.

A more direct acquaintance was with Pope John Paul II, who helped Frossard to write a book by answering questions. They became friends who telephoned each other frequently, which did not prevent Frossard from telling the Pope that there were times when he was too Papist.

Although he affected to despise honours, he was determined to be a member of the Academie Francaise, which he did with difficulty, at his second try in 1987. There he looked with amusement at the preparations for the election of the Primate of Gaul, Cardinal Decourtray. "I suppose that at least he believes in God," he commented.

A journalist since before the Second World War, Frossard worked for several papers before joining Le Figaro in June 1962. He was a prolific writer. God exists: I know because I've met him (1969) was a best-seller. He surveyed the literary scene with amusement. His constant surprise was in his appearance. As comics are supposed to look glum when the camera is not on them, so Frossard looked bad-tempered until one spoke to him. Then one encountered wit and humour.

When he learnt of Frossard's death, the Pope dedicated his daily mass to him. Doubtless for him, and for many others, there will be much missing of those tiny articles on the front page.

Douglas Johnson Andre Frossard, journalist and writer: born Colombier-Chatelot, Doubs 14 January 1915: died Paris 2 February 1995.