Obituary: Max Lejeune

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"I do not know you but I need you." These words were spoken by de Gaulle to Max Lejeune on 4 June 1958. They meant that the socialist deputy Lejeune, who had served in no less than 10 governments of the Fourth Republic, was to be a minister in the first government of the new regime. Because the army had confidence in Lejeune, de Gaulle considered making him Minister for Algerian Affairs, but was dissuaded. Lejeune became Minister for the Sahara, a post he had already held.

De Gaulle was not dissuaded in his intention to take Lejeune and another minister, Louis Jacquinot, with him on his journey to Algiers on 6 June. Everyone warned him that ministers of the Fourth Republic, which had allegedly been prepared to abandon Algeria, would be badly received, even when some of the most fervent Algerie-Francaise supporters stated that Max Lejeune, at least, was "irreproachable".

The trouble started at Algiers airport. De Gaulle was received by the military leaders and was whisked away to the residence of the Gouvernement General, but Lejeune and his ministerial colleague found that no car had been provided for them. They were about to be abandoned, but they literally fought their way into the remaining official cars. On arriving at the residence they were locked in a small room, and they stayed there whilst de Gaulle was making his speech. Several of the irate settlers tried to get to them, but eventually an astute general was able to free them and take them to safety.

This was not the first disagreeable experience that Lejeune had suffered in Algiers. On 6 February 1956, as Secretary of State for War, he accompanied his newly elected Prime Minister, Guy Mollet, to Algiers. This journey was intended to be a gesture that would inaugurate an attempt to end the war in Algeria. But Mollet and Lejeune were forced to abandon their attempts to lay wreaths at the war memorial, as quantities of tomatoes and other missiles rained down upon them. The visit was abandoned.

Lejeune's attitude towards Algeria was emphatically socialist. He believed that France should carry out a social and educational policy which would transform Algerian society. Once the effects of this policy were seen, then Algerians would wish to remain French. The Socialist Republic could make the bonds between France and Algeria unbreakable.

This view was not shared by all his fellow socialists. Nor were Lejeune's actions always welcomed. In October 1956 he approved of the kidnapping of Ben Bella and other nationalist leaders when their plane, travelling between Rabat and Tunis, was diverted to Algiers. In August 1954 he voted against the European Defence Community Treaty and was, for a time, expelled from the Socialist Party. He was always on the Right of the party and moderately nationalist. He was fully involved in the Suez operation of 1956.

Max Lejeune was the doyen of French parliamentarians. Elected Deputy for Abbeville in 1936, he held this position until 1977, with the exception of the Second World War years when he was in the Resistance. Then from 1977 until his death he was Senator for the Somme. He was elected mayor of Abbeville in 1947 and held that position for 40 years. He was a close friend of Guy Mollet - the mayor of Abbeville saw eye to eye with the mayor of Arras, and the one-time geography teacher from Abbeville was always in favour of the one-time English teacher from Arras. Max Lejeune was a stalwart of the Socialist party in its pre-Mitterrand days.

Douglas Johnson

Max Lejeune, politician: born Flesselles 19 February 1909; married (one son, one daughter); died 22 November 1995.