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OBITUARY:Alexandre de Marenches

It is said that, while in England it is the most carefully chosen people who go into intelligence work, in France those who are considered to be the best go rather to the Quai d'Orsay. It would seem that President Georges Pompidou had the British model in mind when he appointed Alexandre de Marenches as the head of his intelligence services.

De Marenches was aristocratic and well-connected, coming from an old Franche Comte family, having an American mother and a Scottish wife. He was rich and independent. This last quality was particularly important at the time because Pompidou knew how the intelligence services had been circulating defamatory reports about his wife and himself during the last six months of de Gaulle's presidency. They had allegedly been involved with the film star Alain Delon, whose bodyguard had been found murdered in September 1968.

A number of agents had seized the opportunity of revenging themselves on Pompidou, who had taken strong action against those colleagues who had been involved in the kidnapping of Ben Barka, the leader of the Moroccan opposition in 1965. De Marenches was brought in to clear up these networks, and the fact that he was a great friend of de Gaulle's rival and enemy Marshal Alphonse Juin was an additional advantage.

Alexandre de Marenches was born in Paris in 1921, and in his youth he met many of the heroes of the First World War, including Petain. He joined the army in 1939, and after the armistice initiated himself into a form of intelligence work by informing his relatives and contacts in the United States about German activities in France. In 1942 he made his way to Algiers, joined the French army there and played a distinguished role in the Italian campaign, becoming Juin's aide-de-camp. After the war he moved into industry, resigning from the army reserve in protest against de Gaulle's Algerian policy.

Once installed in the Elysee from 1970 onwards as head of the Service of External Documentation and Counter- Espionage (SDECE), the forerunner of today's Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure, he was in his element. A natural authoritarian, he carried out the President's instructions about cleaning up the service, and was indifferent to the protests that this caused. A natural activist, he started to travel, to meet with other governments and to pursue the interests of France in different parts of the world. It was a time of change and of rumour and it is difficult to assess de Marenches's achievements. There were those who believed that, while he was one of the busiest figures on the intelligence circuit, some of his pronouncements (those on the Soviet Union for example) were based on slender information. Others noted how he successfully cultivated his contacts in the Middle East, pushing the sales of Mirage fighters and helping to establish a relationship with Iraq that has persisted. In Africa, sometimes working with the old Gaullist emissary Jacques Foccart, and sometimes behaving as his rival, de Marenches strengthened France's traditional strongholds.

Such was his authority that, when Giscard d'Estaing succeeded Pompidou in 1974, he kept his position throughout the presidential term, thus occupying the post for an unprecedented 11 years. Symbolically, when Pompidou died, the key to his personal safe had been mislaid. Only de Marenches had a key. With the new President, he tried to awaken interest in the former Portuguese colonies in Africa, and when Giscard protested that they were a long way away, he answered, "Yes, but they are getting nearer.''

With the coming of the Socialists to power, de Marenches resigned. The presence of Communists in the government formed in 1981 was unacceptable to him. He disapproved of the new organisation of security and was particularly scathing about the fiasco of the Rainbow Warrior. In 1986, with the journalist Christine Ockrent, he published a book, Dans le secret des princes, which claimed that there were concealed archives that contained evidence proving that certain supposed figures of the Resistance had, in fact, collaborated with the Germans during the occupation. Perhaps he had certain of President Mitterrand's friends in mind.

It was appropriate that the man who liked to reveal the conspiracies of others (a plot to kill Col Muammar Gaddafi, for example) should himself have been the subject of such rumours. It is said that in 1945, when Marshal Petain returned to France, de Marenches thought that it would be better to have him assassinated rather than subject him to a trial that could only harm France.

But, however eccentric de Marenches was at times, it should not be forgotten that he was highly esteemed for his valour and patriotism. Edouard Balladur knew him well when they were both working closely with President Pompidou. Last year, when Balladur was Prime Minister, he was due to preside over a medal-awarding ceremony. He was suddenly unable to attend and he asked de Marenches to take his place. Coming from Balladur this was a serious mark of respect as well as of friendship.

Douglas Johnson

Alexandre de Marenches, soldier, industrialist, intelligence chief: born Paris 17 June 1921; Head of SDECE 1970-81; married Lilian-Mary Witchell; died Monaco 2 June 1995.