AT FIRST SIGHT, Pierre-Olivier Lapie was just one of the many politicians who occupied posts in the flurry of governments characteristic of the Fourth Republic in France. As Blum gave way to Pleven and as Pleven was succeeded by Queville, so Lapie moved from foreign affairs (where he had been under-secretary) to education (where he was minister), eventually becoming Vice-President of the Assembly.
But there was more to Lapie than this. Coming from a well-known family in Rennes, and practising as a successful lawyer, he entered politics as a left-wing candidate and in 1936 he was elected republican socialist deputy for Meurthe-et-Moselle. As a supporter of the Popular Front he was well known for his activity in taking public libraries to those of the population who did not normally have access to books. His 'bibliobus' was a familiar sight around Nancy. In 1939 he was called up and took part in the Norwegian campaign. He was evacuated to Britain just in time to become one of the first adherents of General Charles de Gaulle's Free France.
De Gaulle welcomed the former socialist deputy: Lapie was put in charge of foreign affairs, and as such he was with de Gaulle in August 1940 when he signed the letters that were exchanged with Churchill and which became the basis of Free France's constitutional position. Shortly afterwards he appointed Lapie as Governor of the French colony of Chad with orders to rally French Africa to Free France. From there Lapie co-operated with those units of the French army which were making their way towards North Africa. When de Gaulle set up his provisional government in Algiers, Lapie became a member of the consultative committee.
Thus Lapie served de Gaulle as a diplomat, a politician and a soldier. He had been one of the few who had known de Gaulle before the war, when he had interested himself in de Gaulle's plans for a professional army. The Conference of Brazzaville, in 1944, which set out the lines of development for the French empire had been a disappointment for him and de Gaulle had refused his suggestions for giving the French colonies greater self-determination. Perhaps this was why he left de Gaulle, took up his seat in Meurthe- et-Moselle and accepted the Fourth Republic. But in 1954 he was one of many Socialist deputies to be expelled from the party because he was opposed to the European Community for Defence. He was re-integrated but expelled again when he agreed to preside over an inquiry into state and private education.
In 1958 Lapie lost his seat to a Gaullist, but he became increasingly more sympathetic to left-wing Gaullism. He wrote a number of books, notably his memoirs of the Fourth Republic (which contain a description of the then President, Vincent Auriol, presiding while the young Francois Mitterrand was reading romantic literature at the end of the table). He was the author of several books studying the English and a biography of Cromwell. He was Vice-President of the Association France-Grande Bretagne.
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