Obituary: Jacques Foccart

The centenary of General de Gaulle's birth was celebrated in Paris from 19 to 24 November 1990 by a series of meetings which attracted large audiences. Included were many well-known figures who did not need to display their names on the lapels of their jackets, as everyone was supposed to. But one label attracted attention mingled with surprise. It revealed that the small, genial figure with high complexion and shining bald pate was none other than Jacques Foccart, the man of the shadows, de Gaulle's closest and most mysterious adviser.

It was he who had master-minded French action in Africa and who had created and controlled his own intelligence network there. After de Gaulle's resignation he had been retained, after some hesitation, by President Pompidou, but neither Giscard nor Mitterrand had made use of his services (although Chirac had consulted him during his brief period as Prime Minister, 1986- 88).

In 1990, given the circumstances, and at the age of 77, it was reasonable to suppose that his active career was over. But in 1995, when Jacques Chirac was elected President of the Republic, one of his first acts was to bring Foccart out of his retirement and to install him as special adviser in the Elysee. In the summer of 1996, although very ill, Foccart demonstrated his continuing activity and influence by arranging for Bob Denard, a mercenary soldier who had organised an unsuccessful coup in the Comoro Islands, to be released from prison.

Foccart belonged to the so-called "Academy of Gaullism". He was one of the seven or eight men who gathered around de Gaulle at the great moments, such as the beginnings of the new Republic in June 1958, and who were allowed to follow the coffin to the grave at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises in November 1970. Yet he was unlike his companions. He was the son of a man who had a banana business and who had married a Creole in Guadeloupe. His youth was spent between Guadeloupe and Mayenne in France and his education was rudimentary. He never passed his baccalaureat.

During the Second World War, he became a sergeant in the French army and after the armistice of 1940 he joined the Resistance, soon adhering to de Gaulle's leadership. After de Gaulle's resignation in January 1946, Foccart, who had returned to his business interests, was one of those who believed in the necessity of organising his return to power.

He became, along with Andre Malraux and Jacques Soustelle, amongst the first to urge the creation of a Gaullist political party, subsequently the Rally of the French People (the RPF). In 1954, when this party was in full decline, he took on the thankless job of its Secretary-General. For many years, he had looked after the party's finances, details of which remain secret.

It is not clear what role Foccart played in any of the so-called "13 plots" of 1958 which led to the insurrection in Algiers and to the collapse of the Fourth Republic. But he knew what was going on and he saw to it that the General was fully informed. Once the Fifth Republic was established, Foccart revealed another difference between him and the other leading Gaullists. His ambition was strictly limited. He did not want to become a deputy or a minister (it was said that de Gaulle once offered him the Ministry of the Interior). He wished to remain de Gaulle's adviser on African and Malgasy affairs and to keep him informed on general intelligence matters.

The General was determined that France should continue to play a leading role in sub- Saharan Africa, either through a Franco-African community or, when that failed, through continued contacts with African leaders. In this way Foccart became involved with the complexities of African politics, and, as a leading agent in this period of neo-colonisation, his negotiating and bargaining led to the rise and fall of individual African leaders and to establishing the orientations of African diplomacy.

Foccart's competence was beyond question. It was he who briefed French ambassadors when they were appointed to African states. He saw de Gaulle whenever he wanted, sometimes every day, and, having gained the confidence of the leaders of French-speaking Africa, he acted as an intermediary between the General and them. Inevitably, rumours grew about his influence and the nature of his activity. It was one thing to make Albert Bongo President of Gabon, but when certain French firms gained lucrative contracts with African states, or when African leaders were kidnapped, or murdered, it was asked if Foccart were responsible. His head was said to be surrounded by a halo of manipulation.

And it was reported that his activities were not confined to the African continent. He was said to have had Couve de Murville followed. Extremists from the Algerian settlers who were on the run blamed Foccart when they were discovered and arrested. After de Gaulle's resignation, Alain Poher, the President of the Senate who temporarily replaced him, complained that Foccart was having his family shadowed as well as himself.

In 1994, he took what was for him the unprecedented step of speaking about himself to a journalist, Philippe Gaillard. One volume of the conversations was published in 1995 and another was promised. Here he presented himself as the victim of journalistic fable and of gossip. But his denial that he had been an all-powerful figure working in secret was made less effective by the casual manner in which it was made and by his refusal to speak about certain topics ("the archives will tell you" is a phrase that adds spice to mystery). It was evident that Foccart enjoyed his legend.

In April 1995, three weeks before the ballot of the presidential election, Foccart attended a mass in memory of Georges Pompidou. Edouard Balladur (then Prime Minister) and Jacques Chirac (then Mayor of Paris), both candidates in the election, were present in the Church on the Ile Saint Louis. At the end of the ceremony, Balladur was the first to leave. When Chirac was leaving, Foccart said in a loud voice: "There goes the next President." He did not say that he had arranged it, but the implication was there.

Then, walking painfully on crutches, he left the church and went straight to the television cameras that were waiting. One thought of Colonel Lawrence, backing shyly into the limelight.

Douglas Johnson

Jacques Guillaume Louis Marie Koch (Jacques Foccart), businessman and politician: born Ambrieres-le Grand, Mayenne 31 August 1913; Secretary- General for African and Malagasy Affairs at the Elysee 1958-74; married 1939 Isabelle Fenoglio (deceased); died Paris 19 March 1997.

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