AT THE GREAT series of meetings that were held in Paris to celebrate the centenary of the birth of General de Gaulle in 1990, it was fitting that the debate on the general's defence policies should have been presided over by General Michel Fourquet.
Of the many officers who served the general, he must have been the closest to him. It was sometimes said that when de Gaulle decided that France should cease fighting a war in order to keep Algeria as a French possession, he earned the hostility of the French armed services as a whole. This was not so. Fourquet was one of the early organisers of discussion groups which deplored the manner in which the French army was being reduced to the role of an out-of-date force, confined to garrison in a colonial position of dubious value.
Fourquet was a general of the air force. That arm did not have an important role to play in the Algerian war, but he saw that it was vital in determining whether or not France was to be a power in Europe and in the world. De Gaulle was all the more attracted to these arguments because in his pre-1939 writings on mechanised warfare he had underestimated the importance of air power.
In any case Fourquet was a Gaullist. As a young pilot he joined Free France in 1940 and flew in the famous Groupe Lorraine (winning a Distinguished Flying Cross). He also recognised the importance of politics and he was attached to several ministerial cabinets under the Fourth Republic. But it was the return of de Gaulle to power, and the improvisation of government when the general was still officially only Prime Minister, that gave Fourquet the greatest pleasure.
Later, in Algeria, he proved that he was the most trustworthy of military leaders. He would have nothing to do with the rising of the four dissident generals in April 1961, and he played an important part in wrecking their schemes. Subsequently, when peace in Algeria had been made, it was he who carried out the difficult task of evacuating the French army. The accidental death of the chief of staff of the armed forces in 1968 led naturally to Fourquet's replacing him and being the spokesman and organiser of French nuclear power.
Michel Fourquet used to say that, when discussing matters with de Gaulle, he always had to remember two things. That de Gaulle was first of all a romantic, with a vast vision of the future. But that he was also a practical man who would adopt practical policies. In the last months of de Gaulle's reign Fourquet persuaded him that it was time for France to get closer to the United States in matters of defence.
But Fourquet spoke little about his own importance. He was as discreet as he was distinguished.