Obituary: Herve Alphand
Monday 07 February 1994
THOSE WHO worked with Herve Alphand during his time as a diplomat, serving in Washington, the United Nations or as the secretary- general of the Quai d'Orsay, knew that he was a most efficient and skilful administrator. Those who did not work with him did not realise this. They saw rather a highly cultured Frenchman who wished to surround himself with people from high society and whose conversation moved from the frivolous to the cynical.
But most people know and appreciate Alphand through the journal which he kept from 1939 to 1973, published under the title L'Etonnement d'etre (1977). Here one sees what an extraordinary and fascinating life he led, and how he came to judge people. He recalled at the moment of the Armistice walking in the gardens of a casino with a former radical and hearing him talk enthusiastically about the future. Europe, he was told, would be united under a German president and France would profit in every way. Alphand defined this Franco- German collaboration in the words of Talleyrand as the collaboration between the horse and its rider.
The problem of Germany and Europe crops up on other occasions. Notably in 1954, when Pierre Mendes-France, with whom Alphand had been a student and whom he disliked greatly, was Prime Minister. He thought that the killing off of the European Defence Community treaty by the government meant that Germany would be rearmed and would reappear as a dangerous power; Germany should only be rearmed within the context of a united Europe.
Ten years later, when he analyses the policies of de Gaulle, he notes that Germany is doing nothing to promote the construction of Europe, and that the results of the Franco-German treaty were disappointing.
We learn a lot about the vicissitudes of a diplomat's life. Mendes- France offered to appoint Alphand ambassador in Cairo. He was then offered Buenos Aires or Tokyo, the government, he believed, having sought out the two posts that were furthest removed from Paris. He accepted Tokyo but his appointment was never made official. Subsequently, under successive governments he was considered for Bonn, Rome or Ankara. Eventually, after much dispute, he was made ambassador to the United Nations in 1955, a post which he describes as being more parliamentary than diplomatic, in so far as it meant counting votes and meeting people in the corridors and talking to them.
Doubtless his most important appointment was to Washington at the height of the Suez affair. In spite of his many assertions that France was the oldest ally of the United States, he noted that the difficulties that existed between the two countries were not, as was often said, the result of General de Gaulle's being in power. Before leaving for Washington he had called on de Gaulle, and his account of the General's pessimism combined with a passing comparison de Gaulle makes between the original French monarch Clovis and himself, is one of the most remarkable portraits of the General whom he had joined in 1941 as Director of Economic Affairs on the French National Committee.
Alphand was a cunning diplomat. He knew how to keep a document secret in his drawer until the right moment to produce it. He knew how to relax: three weeks at Saint Tropez entirely devoted to the sea and restaurants. He knew his literature and when de Gaulle was cynical about the Nobel prize's being awarded to Saint-John Perse (an old enemy), Alphand explained that he could understand Perse's poetry because he read the English translations. But he himself liked to be cynical. Out of prudence, as he put it.
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