Obituary: Baron Geoffroy de Courcel
Tuesday 15 December 1992
GEOFFROY de Courcel was an affable and unflappable aristocrat, very much the career diplomat; his grandfather had been ambassador to London from 1894 to 1898 and he filled that post himself for 10 years from 1962 to 1972. He was also by choice and conviction a firm Gaullist, the 'premier compagnon'. If de Courcel was one of the most eminent of Gaullists he was also the most discreet. Pierre Viansson-Ponte, the observer of the Gaullist court at high noon, noted that he was not merely discreet but was secrecy itself in human form.
Geoffroy de Courcel was born in 1912, educated at the College Stanislas and the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques, and took a degree in literature as well as a doctorate in law. He spoke good English. He passed the French Foreign Office examinations in 1937 and was posted first as attache in Warsaw and then secretary in Athens in 1938.
De Courcel was mobilised as a lieutenant in the cavalry on the outbreak of war. He happened to be on leave when de Gaulle was made Under-Secretary of State in the Reynaud government on 5 June 1940. De Gaulle had asked for an English-speaking diplomat and de Courcel joined de Gaulle's private office.
He became devoted to de Gaulle. Consequently, it was without hesitation that de Courcel joined de Gaulle on the flight from Bordeaux to London in General Edward Spears's plane. He was one of the French witnesses to de Gaulle's historic call to resistance made over the BBC on 18 June. He stayed by de Gaulle's side to run his private office in London and his diplomacy and ease with English society made him an ideal administrator. However, in 1941 de Courcel was given permission first to take command of an armoured-car unit in Libya and then to be a captain in a regiment of Moroccan Spahis (taking part in the British 8th Army advance to Tunis).
By August 1943 he was back at de Gaulle's side, this time as assistant director of de Gaulle's office at the Committee of National Liberation in Algiers. In 1944 he was dispatched to Alsace-Lorraine as Commissaire de la Republique to ensure civil order and government control in the provinces. But in 1945 he was back in the foreign service. He participated in the San Francisco conference which set up the United Nations, was counsellor in Rome and on the Council of Four and then returned to the Foreign Office in Paris. He was Director-General for Moroccan and Tunisian affairs in the ministry at the time of the Pierre Mendes France government's decolonisation. He knew Pierre Mendes France from London (and had initially made him a telephonist at de Gaulle's headquarters) and was in sympathy with the new leadership. (De Courcel was one of the three negotiators of Tunisian autonomy.) From 1955 to 1958 he was Secretary-General of National Defence, 'where his silence was greatly admired'. He was not a member of de Gaulle's political party (the RPF) but never lost contact with the general or with his staff (Christian Fouchet or Gaston Palewski, to whom he owed much of his advance).
After 13 May 1958, when de Gaulle returned to power, de Courcel was put on ice, being nominated ambassador to Nato. However in 1959 he was made Secretary-General at the Elysee. He held this job through three difficult years which saw the establishment of the institutions of the Fifth Republic and the ending of the Algerian war. He was already aware, from his experience with Tunisia and Morocco, of the main problem and he spent most of his time dealing with Algeria.
In 1962 he was rewarded with the ambassadorship to London although this position proved to be a fraught one. De Gaulle's policies, and his rejection of Britain's applications to join the European Community, led to a tension between de Courcel's Anglophilia (he sent one of his sons to Eton) and his Gaullism. De Courcel was, of course, never anything but a loyal servant of the general. There was an incident at the Rambouillet meeting in 1962 when de Courcel was critical of the way his successor at the Elysee (Etienne Burin des Roziers) had placed Macmillan at a shooting party. However it soon became evident that de Courcel, like all of de Gaulle's ambassadors and most of his ministers, had no influence and was no better informed about de Gaulle's startling policies than anybody else.
De Courcel never sought a political career and rejected the offer of one in 1969 when he might have become President Pompidou's foreign minister. He returned as Secretary-General at the Quai d'Orsay from 1973 to 1976. On his retirement he devoted himself to his estate and to the perpetuation of de Gaulle's work. He was president of the Institut Charles de Gaulle from 1985 to 1992, although ill-health prevented him making the contribution he would have wished.
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