JEAN LECANUET became a national figure in France when he was a candidate in the Presidential elections of 1965. General de Gaulle had deliberately created uncertainty as to whether he would seek another mandate; the opposition tried in vain to find a non-Communist around whom they could unite. For the first time the President was to be elected by universal suffrage. For the first time, too, television and opinion polls were to be important elements in the contest. Nevertheless de Gaulle was confident of winning, and thought that he might well gain 70 per cent of the votes cast, against his one serious rival, Francois Mitterrand. In the first opinion polls Lecanuet was given only 2 per cent.
But the Lecanuet campaign was sensational. He was hailed as the French Kennedy, he was a success on television. He also succeeded in traditional meetings and shortly before the first ballot he addressed an enthusiastic audience of some 10,000 in Paris. He spoke as if he were certain to be elected.
His campaign denounced de Gaulle because he was not in favour of Europe, and because he was not active enough in promoting progress. Lecanuet gained some 16 per cent of the vote, most of which was taken from traditional supporters of de Gaulle. As a consequence de Gaulle had the humiliation of having to stand in a second ballot, and for a moment it seemed likely that a disgusted de Gaulle would turn his back on France and withdraw. That he did not do so and that he was re- elected hardly diminished Lecanuet's triumph. France, he believed, wanted to avoid the right and the left in politics, and saw that its future lay in a European Community.
These were Lecanuet's political beliefs throughout his career. A highly qualified academic philosopher, who had fought in the Resistance (he was arrested by the Germans in 1944), he saw himself in the tradition of Social Catholicism and he became a member of the Popular Republican Party when it was formed after the Liberation. He served as an official in different ministries before becoming a deputy and later a senator. He opposed the Communists and the Gaullists because in his view they were neither sufficiently democratic nor sufficiently European. As ideologies crumbled, he believed that the future lay with men of goodwill who would co-operate in France and in Europe.
Considering that the election of Giscard d'Estaing in 1974 marked the end of Gaullism, Lecanuet became a minister and held several key posts. He was spoken of as a possible President of the Republic. But the centre never held and seldom prospered. The victory of the Socialists in 1981 put paid to his hopes. With the appointment of Chirac as Prime Minister in 1986, he had expectations of becoming Minister for External Affairs, but he was disappointed.
Lecanuet's great consolation was the town of Rouen. He was Mayor from 1968 onwards, and when last December illness prevented him from attending a meeting of the municipal council, this was the first that he had missed for a quarter of a century. Last September he campaigned in favour of the Maastricht Treaty. As an opponent of Mitterrand he said that people should think 'no' but should vote 'yes'. Such ambivalence is said to be typically Norman.