That legendary savoir-faire: In France Pompidou symbolises boom time. We should remember him, too, says Douglas Johnson

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The Independent Online
TWENTY years after his death, the Pompidou legend is still powerful in France. It is not merely that there are good reasons for remembering him. For example, the present Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, was a close friend and associate and in his calm, prudent manner clearly models himself on Georges Pompidou. Nor is it that the story of Paul Touvier, now being tried in Versailles for crimes committed against French Jews in 1944, would have been quite different had not President Pompidou pardoned him in 1970.

The legend lies deeper. Eight out of 10 French citizens believe it would have been good to live in Pompidou's France - when there was boom rather than recession and when it was unthinkable that unemployment could ever rise as high as 400,000 (it now stands at 4 million). Today, when young people are indulging in violent protests against government wage policies, the collective memory of the nation turns to May 1968. Then, student demonstrations, followed by widespread strikes, brought the country to a standstill. As de Gaulle appeared to flounder, it was Pompidou who displayed firmness and statesmanship and who presided over a return to normality and an eventual Gaullist triumph in that year's elections in June.

In Britain, Pompidou is neither a memory nor a legend. But he should be the former, and he might also be the latter. If there is nowhere for Britain to go but to Europe, then we should remember that it was thanks to Pompidou that Europe was opened up to us. He gave Edward Heath the opportunity to pursue his policy and the 10 hours of conversation that took place between them in May 1971 were crucial for the success of the negotiations. Speaking on BBC television three days before that meeting, Pompidou also rejected the idea that the Common Market would come to be ruled by some technocratic and administrative power, centralised in Brussels. His vision of Europe was very acceptable.

Naturally, the legend contains exaggerations. Pompidou's presidency (which lasted from 1969 to 1974) was not marked by uninterrupted prosperity. The first petrol crisis, instability in the international money markets and fears of inflation characterised the closing months of his rule, while social unrest had persisted throughout the period. Nor is it true to say that the 1968 crisis was handled exclusively by Pompidou. De Gaulle's dramatic strategem of disappearing on 29 May transformed the situation. When he reappeared and broadcast to the nation, de Gaulle was behaving like a man in full charge of the operation. Which he was.

Not everyone in France welcomed the admission of Britain to the Common Market. Some saw it as an unnecessary attempt to counter-balance the growing power of West Germany. Few were convinced that the new member was truly European.

The real Pompidou legend is the story of his career. Well qualified academically, he was a lycee teacher, although he served in the army until the armistice of 1940 (and was decorated). With the liberation, he manoeuvred himself into a minor post in de Gaulle's administration. In 1948, Pompidou was head of de Gaulle's private office and the admired administrator of the Anne de Gaulle Foundation, which sought to support handicapped children (and named after the daughter who had suffered from Down's syndrome). These were the days of the Rally of the French People, the political party that failed to bring the General back to power, so in 1953, when this failure was obvious, Pompidou entered Rothschild's bank. In 1958, with the return of de Gaulle, he took a series of leave periods from the bank, in order to advise and to carry out secret missions (such as negotiations with Algerian rebels). In April 1962 he was made prime minister.

For the grandson of peasants and the son of elementary school teachers to have made himself a scholar, a lycee teacher, a respected administrator and a distinguished banker was a remarkable achievement. Now he had to make himself an expert in politics.

He was to be prime minister until July 1968, a longer period than any predecessor in any of the Republics. He had never been elected either a deputy or a senator, and when he made his first speech as prime minister he was making his maiden speech in the Assembly. Not since 1837, when Count Mole headed an administration, had such an event occurred. In the 1962 legislative elections the government parties virtually won an absolute majority, in the 1968 elections the government party alone had such a majority. This had not happened since 1815.

Everyone recognised that de Gaulle had chosen him for his ability. No one could master a dossier as quickly as Pompidou. He kept a shrewd eye on all domestic affairs and he built his influence in Parliament. On television he was effective. When de Gaulle toured the provinces and made speeches about France and China, his listeners admired the grandeur that he incarnated. But when Pompidou spoke about the economic development of the territory and plans for industrialisation, his listeners appreciated what was practical and what was of direct concern to them. Pompidou came to be seen as an alternative to de Gaulle.

The events of 1968 increased Pompidou's prestige and his resolve to determine wider areas of policy. This caused de Gaulle to change his prime minister. Once his obligatory resignation was accepted, he let it be known that if a vacancy occurred he would seek to be elected President. This duly happened on 15 June 1968, when he gained 58 per cent of the votes cast.

He much enjoyed being President. He followed de Gaulle in carrying out a world policy, and became accepted as the spokesman for Europe. At home his main preoccupation was industry. And modernisation of the economy had to be accompanied by a greater appreciation of modern art. Hence the Pompidou Centre at Beaubourg in Paris.

The French enjoyed having him as President. They liked him because he looked cunning, flew in Concorde, wanted them all to have washing machines, and said 'tu' to Brigitte Bardot. His illness, therefore, was all the more distressing. Medication changed his appearance. No one was convinced that he was suffering from persistent 'flu, as was officially stated. We know now that the illness had been diagnosed in 1972 as a form of leukaemia.

He continued working but it was at the cost of enormous effort. On 27 March 1974 he told the Council of Ministers that he was going away for a few days' rest. 'But I will be back,' he said. He returned to Paris only to die, in his house on the Quai de Bethune. He was 63. 'Such courage and such suffering merits the greatest respect,' was the comment of Francois Mitterrand, his opponent for 12 years.

The author is Emeritus Professor of French history at the University of London.

(Photograph omitted)