SOME politicians never accept ministerial office. One such was Claude Labbe, who believed that as the leader of his group in the French National Assembly he was doing more valuable work than if he were studying dossiers. Also he was a pure Gaullist, and for every pure Gaullist there is always a certain idea of abnegation.
Labbe lived through all the episodes of Gaullism. Having served in a tank regiment in 1940, he joined the Resistance. But the voice that he listened to was the voice of de Gaulle speaking from London. When the General formed his own political party, the Rally of French People, Labbe joined it and became very active. He was elected a municipal councillor in his home town of Argenteuil, in the north-west of Paris, and with the return of the General to power he was elected deputy for the same area in 1958. Beaten by a Communist in the elections of 1962, he was elected deputy for Meudon in 1967, and held that seat until earlier this year, when ill- health caused him to stand down.
It was in 1973 that Labbe was elected the leader of the Gaullists in the Assembly (they were then known as the Union des Democrates pour le Republique). This was a crucial moment. The following year the Gaullists split. With the death of President Pompidou two Gaullists, Jacques Chaban-Delmas and Pierre Messmer, each claimed that they were the rightful candidates to succeed him, while a third, Chirac, chose to support Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who was the eventual winner. When Chirac was made Prime Minister there were those in the party who regarded him as a traitor, but Labbe prevented any further disintegration and organised support for him. As relations between Chirac and Giscard deteriorated, Labbe supported Chirac and emphasised the importance of the party in the Assembly. 'Nothing can be done without us,' he said, 'we can press the button whenever we like.'
In December 1976 Chirac organised a gigantic meeting and formed the Rassemblement pour la Republique. Some time after this Chirac got rid of his advisers and made Labbe his political councillor. Labbe knew that this was no easy appointment. One of his predecessors had warned him how difficult it was to work with Chirac, who had a tendency to do the opposite to that which he was advised to do. But Labbe accepted his new responsibilities with characteristic determination, and most people believe that he was very important in keeping the party together and restraining its impulsive leader.
But Chirac and Labbe did not always agree. For Labbe, Giscard was the enemy, but at times Chirac seemed prepared to re-open negotiations with him. Raymond Barre (who had succeeded Chirac as Prime Minister in 1976) was a rival whom Labbe believed could be enticed into the Gaullist ranks and thereby neutralised, but Chirac did not follow his advice. One of his enemies was Simone Veil, who was always placed high in the opinion polls and whose experience in a concentration camp entitled her to widespread respect. But not from Labbe. 'The more she speaks', he claimed, 'the more she makes people anti-Semitic.'
Last year, Labbe was opposed to the Maastricht Treaty, but the greatest difference came in 1986, when the opposition to Mitterrand won the elections and Chirac agreed to become Prime Minister. Labbe was vigorously opposed to this first experiment in 'co-habitation' and said so publicly. It was not surprising that he was relieved of his post as leader of the Gaullists in the Assembly. Some of Chirac's friends have said that he had intended to get rid of him for many years, but that he had lacked the courage to do something unpleasant. It is more likely that he found Labbe extremely useful.
Like all party managers, most of Labbe's work was in committee rooms or in party meetings. But one occasion was different. On 30 May 1968 there was a great rally of support for de Gaulle in the Champs Elysees. The atmosphere, heavy with student disorders and industrial strikes, changed. Labbe was one of the chief organisers.