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OBITUARY:Gilbert Prol

Gilbert Prol had a distinguished and unusual career. Unusual because it was so varied.

A product of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, he became a civil servant who worked in Morocco before becoming de Gaulle's press attach. Then for 17 years he was a businessman, secretary-general and the President of Air France. He was a diplomat who directed the Quai d'Orsay at the difficult time of the first co-habitation between the Socialist President and a right-wing government, who was ambassador in Tunis, Tokyo and finally (1988-91) in Rome. And having voluntarily retired from officialdom at the age of 64, he became an active politician, a journalist and author.

In all these activities, whether he was endeavouring to soothe a de Gaulle who had been irritated by the late arrival of the newspapers, whether he was negotiating with airline pilots about their salaries, or whether he was reconciling Prime Minister Chirac's furious attempts to intervene in foreign affairs and President Mitterrand's obstinate belief that this was his domain, he showed the same patience, persistence and skill. It is not surprising that he was an outstanding chess player.

Naturally it was his experience of working with de Gaulle that most marked him. It was Prol who was responsible for the organisation of the famous press conferences which the General usually held twice a year. He not only took part in the minute preparation of the material that de Gaulle imposed upon himself and his staff, he was also responsible for the procedure - above all, organising the questions to be asked. Since it was the voice of France speaking, there was to be no improvisation.

But Prol has described how he sat next to de Gaulle during theses lengthy sessions, wracked with nervousness, fearful that the General would lose his way in the elegant complexity of his argument. But he never did, and as the journalists rushed for their telephones, a relaxed de Gaulle would hand his notes, which he had never consulted, to Prol and ask, "How did it go?"

It was in 1966 that Prol was sent to Ottawa to begin the arrangements for de Gaulle's visits to Canada the following year. He reported that he had never known a colder or more hostile reception. But he also picked up the idea that the authorities in Ottawa would be thwarted if de Gaulle proceeded by ship across the Atlantic and up the Saint Lawrence to Montreal. He was one of the small group that prepared in the greatest secrecy the detailed planning of the journey that culminated in the "Vive le Qubec libre" speech.

Prol's venture into politics was polemical. His book La Grandeur de la France, published in 1992, was a vicious attack on the socialism that had split French society in two and had diminished French national sovereignty. He attached himself to those who opposed the Treaty of Maastricht and who supported the national interests of France, notably Philippe de Villiers. Like the General he believed, with Hamlet, "Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument".

Douglas Johnson

Gilbert Prol, civil servant, diplomat and author: born Tunis 31 May 1926; diplomatic posts in Paris, Morocco, Ethiopia, Algeria 1953-62; Office of President de Gaulle 1963-67; Secretary-General, Air France 1967-74, managing director 1974-82; Ambassador to Tunisia 1983-85; Ambassador to Japan 1985-87; Secretary General, Ministry of External Relations 1987- 88; Ambassador to Italy 1988-91; married 1949 Huguette Cuchet- Cheruzel (three sons); died Paris 8 March 1995.