Obituary: Jean-Edern Hallier

Jean-Edern Hallier was a controversial figure - writer, philosopher and television presenter, agent provocateur and enfant terrible. He conducted personal vendettas against the French presidents Valery Giscard D'Estaing and Francois Mitterrand, as well as most of the Parisian literary establishment.

He was born Jean Hallier in 1936, to a well-to-do family. Baptised in Edern in Britanny the following year, he added the name of the village to his own (he was the first Breton allowed to do this). He excelled at school, going on to Oxford University (a rare feat for a Frenchman) to read comparative literature, Greek, Latin and philosophy at Christ Church.

After working in publishing, he launched the literary review Tel Quel ("The Way It Is"), with Philippe Sollers and Jean-Rene Hughenin, in 1960. They intended to prick the pomposity of French literary circles but, within three years, Hallier had fallen out with his fellow writers. This penchant for pique and volte-face became a regular feature of the next 30 years.

In 1963, Hallier published his first novel, Les Aventures d'une jeune fille ("The Adventures of a Young Girl") to acclaim. He later blew his own trumpet with the semi-autobiographical Le Grand ecrivain ("The Great Writer"). Chagrin d'amour ("Unhappy Love Affair") followed, a fictionalised account of time spent in Chile, which nearly earned him the Prix Goncourt but also contributed to his first downfall. In January 1975, the daily paper Liberation alleged that Hallier had kept a third of the $3,000 he was supposed to have delivered to the Chilean guerrillas fighting the Pinochet regime, and that he wasn't a man to be trusted.

The writer bounced back but from then on he was embroiled in controversy. In 1979, he published Lettre ouverte a un colin froid ("Open Letter to a Cold Hake"), a pamphlet attacking President Giscard D'Estaing. France laughed and Francois Mitterrand, already a keen admirer, was amused. The two became friends. Hallier even nursed the belief he would become Minister of Culture in the event of a socialist victory. Come May 1981, he was bitterly disappointed when Jack Lang was preferred. Hallier turned against the French president and became his bete noire. As a member of Mitterrand's inner circle, Hallier had discovered the existence of Mazarine, the socialist leader's love child by Anne Pingeot. He had also heard about his visits to Poland to consult cancer specialists. Hallier intended to expose him in L'Honneur perdu de Francois Mitterrand ("The Lost Honour of Francois Mitterrand") but, by 1984, 17 publishers had turned the book down.

Their lack of enthusiasm might have been due to government pressure but Hallier's weakness for publicity stunts didn't help. In April 1982, he claimed to have been kidnapped by the French Revolutionary Brigade, a bogus organisation consisting mostly of Hallier associates. When he was "released" a week later, the police could find no trace of his kidnappers. Hallier was now libelling people indiscriminately and had purportedly become "the most bugged man in France". He attempted to blackmail the French administration into dropping huge tax claims against him by threatening to reveal everything he knew about Mitterrand (including his war record). Strangely, the taxman lost interest around the time Hallier burnt his manuscript in front of the Elysee Palace, but the writer had kept a copy and it came out last year, selling 300,000 copies.

Hallier's death occupied most of the French dailies' front pages on the day after his death. They couldn't agree on what exactly he'd brought to the public life of France. Liberation led with "novelist and trickster", Le Figaro opted for "ragged man of letters" but France-Soir didn't mince words and called him "a little brat". Hallier would have relished the absence of consensus.

Jean-Edern Hallier, writer and broadcaster: born Saint-Germain-en-Laye 1 March 1936; married 1965 (one son, one daughter); died Deauville 12 January 1997.

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