Obituary: Albert Gazier

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The welfare state being everywhere under attack, it is sadly symbolic that one of the founders of the French etat providence should have died. Albert Gazier was 88. All his life a socialist and a trade unionist, on several occasions he held ministerial office under the Fourth Republic.

Born in Valenciennes the son of schoolteachers, he was rendered poor by the death of his father in 1916. He started work as an errand boy and continued to have clerical jobs, though he graduated in Law. As a member of the left-wing trade union the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT), he began to assume positions of responsibility.

With the coming of the Popular Front he was one of those who organised the strikes and occupations of the large departmental stores in Paris in June 1936. The hauling down of the yellow flag of the Samaritaine and its replacement by the flag of the CGT was one of the great moments of the social explosion that greeted the victory of Leon Blum. But Gazier was always prudent, apprehensive of a Communist take-over, someone who sought negotiation.

Having volunteered for the army in 1939, in 1940 he became one of the leaders of trade-union opposition to the Vichy government. From December 1940 he was one of Christian Pineau's lieutenants in the movement of Liberation- Nord. He escaped from the Gestapo in 1942, and having taken refuge in the Jura, he spent some time in London during 1943, and was appointed to the Consultative Assembly that met in Algiers. After the Liberation, he was elected a member of the Constituent Assembly.

In all these places his strategy was to oppose any possible Communist domination. Sometimes this made him violent, as he demanded more rigorous punishment for collaborators at the Liberation, so that the Communists would not have the monopoly of revenge. Sometimes and more naturally, he urged a consensus between liberals and socialists, in 1945 proposing that the state should play a moderate role in economic and social matters.

But he was also opposed to a Gaullist dictatorship. In June 1944 he had proposed, on behalf of the CGT, that de Gaulle should assume the title of Head of the Provisional Government. This gave great offence to the General, who did not wish to owe his position to trade unionists. In December 1945 Gazier was one of two socialists who proposed a reduction of military credits. He explained that he only wanted to defend the rights of the Assembly and to influence the government. This was too much for de Gaulle, who resigned in January 1946, disgusted at seeing the renewed power of political parties.

Gazier served in several governments in the years that followed, but his most important experience was as Minister for Social Affairs, in the longest government of the Fourth Republic, that of Guy Mollet, from February 1956 to May 1957. It was said that this government had two policies: that personified by Robert Lacoste in Algiers, who represented the continuation of the war, and that personified by Gazier, who stood for social reform. He introduced a third week of holidays with pay; he created a tax on motor-cars which funded a pension scheme for the old; he negotiated an agreement with the medical unions whereby the whole of medical costs would be refunded by social security; and he introduced important housing reforms.

These measures were popular with many, but they ar-oused alarm because of their cost. However, Gazier was soon involved in more dramatic controversy. He vigorously opposed the return of de Gaulle to power in 1958 because of his opposition to dictatorship and because he believed that there was a secret agreement between de Gaulle and Mos-cow. He was Minister for Information in the government of Pierre Pflimlin, and as minister he led the march of some 200,000 protesters across Paris on 28 May, "la defense republicaine" demonstrating against de Gaulle, and shouting the slogan "De Gaulle au musee!"

His opposition to de Gaulle cost him his seat in parliament; he had been deputy for the Seine since October 1945. It also caused him to break with his old associate Guy Mollet. In his desire to renovate the Socialist Party, and in his conviction that the purpose of Gaullism was to save capitalism, he accepted that socialists and Communists should work together. It was in this spirit that he became a supporter of Francois Mitterrand. He became a fervent supporter of European unity and occupied many distinguished but largely honorific posts during the Mitterrand presidency.

Douglas Johnson

Albert Gazier, politician and trade unionist: born Valenciennes, France 16 May 1908; Minister for Public Works 1946; Secretary of State to the President du Conseil 1947; Minister for Information 1950-51, 1958; Minister for Social Affairs 1956-57; married; died Vanves 2 March 1997.