RENE PLEVEN was one of the many virtually permanent ministers in the carousel of governments during the French Fourth Republic. He was an associate of both Jean Monnet and General de Gaulle and made significant contributions to politics at local, national and European levels. He was a centrist or centre-right political figure and an enthusiast for European reconciliation as well as for French regional development.
Pleven came from a family with strong, even extreme, republican credentials although his brother was incarcerated for Vichy activities at the end of the war and died in prison at Fresnes at the end of 1944. Rene Pleven was born in Rennes in 1901, the son of Col Jules Pleven who taught at the St Cyr Military Academy. He went to secondary school in Rennes and Laval before going on to university and the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris. He graduated with a doctorate in law at the early age of 20 and with a diploma in political science but, despite a brilliant written paper, he failed the oral examination for the Inspection des Finances. He was then helped by Jean Monnet (and probably Robert Schuman) to become a director of Anglo-Canadian Telephones and he flourished in business until the outbreak of war.
From 1939 to 1940 Pleven assisted Monnet on the purchasing mission to the United States and in 1940 he was in London to become de Gaulle's virtual 'colonial minister'. Pleven presided at the Brazzaville conference in 1944 which laid the groundwork for the eventual decolonisation of French Africa.
At the liberation he was the Minister for Colonies briefly, and then Minister of the National Economy. In this post he clashed with Pierre Mendes France. Although Pleven coined the slogan 'modernisation or death' for French industry, and was a liberalising finance minister, he rejected Mendes France's currency reform, took the soft option and inflation followed on a horrendous scale. Pleven was supported by de Gaulle and Mendes France resigned. Pleven then took over as Minister of Finance from April 1945 to 1946.
During the Fourth Republic Pleven was a member of the small Union Democratique Sociale et Republicaine (UDSR), a party created from numerous resistance groups and he was its president from 1946 to 1953. The UDSR, 'too well placed to be ignored, too small to be feared', although initially led by Pleven, was taken over by Francois Mitterrand. The battle between the two was one of the minor permanent skirmishes of the Fourth Republic. Pleven quit the UDSR in 1958 and was close to the leadership in a succession of small centrist groups until 1974.
Pleven was prime minister from July 1950 to February 1951 and again from August 1951 to February 1952. These were active years. As prime minister he index-linked wages and ratified Robert Schuman's Plan for the European Coal and Steel Community. However, Pleven also launched a proposal for a European Defence Community (EDC), which mooted the creation of a European army under a European defence minister and controlled by a European assembly. Germany would have been re-armed (this was being proposed because it was the time of the Korean War) but its forces would have been integrated into a European structure. Pleven's proposals for the setting up of the EDC launched what Raymond Aron called 'the greatest quarrel since the Dreyfus affair' and were defeated in the Assembly in 1954 by an alliance of Gaullists and Communists.
Pleven was Minister of Defence at the time of the fall of the French army base at Dien Bien Phu to Vietnamese guerrillas in 1954. He was manhandled by Gaullists at the Arc de Triomphe and was referred to dismissively as the 'Duc de Dien Bien Phu' for some time after.
Pleven had wanted to build bridges with the Gaullists who were, however, implacably hostile to the Republic which Pleven more or less typified. All the same his opposition to de Gaulle in 1958 was nuanced and he supported the General on the second ballot in 1965. However he campaigned for the rejection of de Gaulle's referendum in 1969 and he supported the presidential campaign of the centrist senate leader Alain Poher against Pompidou.
President Pompidou on his election widened the government to include four non-Gaullists and made Pleven Minister of Justice. In this post, Pleven became a bete noire to the extreme Left but he was the author of a law, in June 1972, which outlawed racial and ethnic discrimination.
Pleven's defeat in the 1973 legislative elections ended his career as a national politician but he remained, as he had always been, an active promoter of Brittany and local interests. He was the proprietor of the local Cotes-du-Nord newspaper and sat on regional development committees from 1951 to 1976. His book L'Avenir de la Bretagne (1962) promoted regional development. From 1974 to 1976 he was president of the Bretagne Regional Council. He was regarded as a successful lobbyist for Bretagne economic interests with both central government (from which he obtained funds) and with industry.
Over a long career which spanned three republics and which brought him into close association with the major figures of French and European post-war history, Rene Pleven was essentially a backstage figure but one of front-rank influence. He played a significant role in all three spheres of his political work: local, national and European.
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