The Presidents’ Man

R.W. Johnson

  • Foccart Parle: Entretiens avec Philippe Gaillard
    Fayard/Jeune Afrique, 501 pp, frs 150.00, May 1995, ISBN 2 213 59419 8

Throughout the Sixties rumours circulated in Paris political circles about the awesome powers of de Gaulle’s adviser, Jacques Foccart. Foccart had no elected position and was seldom seen, but he was said to have an exclusive hold over France’s African policy, the intelligence services and the whole shadowy world of covert action. Every now and again a coup would occur in West or Central Africa or there would be a kidnapping in Switzerland, or some OAS jackal would be run to earth in Latin America. There would be no official comment but those in the know would invariably say: ‘C’est Foccart.’ Foccart himself was never available to the press. Insiders would tell you, incredulously (and, it now seems, correctly), that while a cabinet minister might see de Gaulle every few weeks and the Prime Minister once a week, Foccart had access to him every day and whenever he wanted. For de Gaulle was fascinated by Intelligence, and as a military man, knew its worth.

Then in 1969 de Gaulle lost his referendum on regional reform and promptly resigned. The anti-Gaullist president of the Senate, Alain Poher, took over as interim President and immediately ordered Foccart out of the Elysée. But Foccart had already decamped, with his files, and was now running his office in open defiance of Poher, who made the arrogance and secrecy of the état Gaulliste a major issue in his Presidential election campaign against Pompidou. Suddenly everyone knew about Foccart’s secret powers. Several major exposés appeared, but Foccart himself said not a word. There was no doubt that Poher was really scared. Still wryly amused at the whole business, Foccart tells us here that Poher rang Pompidou in mid-campaign to complain that Foccart was not only having him followed but was shadowing his family too. Pompidou replied that Foccart lacked the means to do this, and that anyway, ‘it’s not Foccart’s style.’ The Prime Minister, Couve de Murville, told Foccart: ‘Poher is fascinated by what you represent. He is persuaded that you have cellars full of weapons, that your coffers are full of gold and that your drawers are full of secret files. He is frightened of you and wants to destroy you.’ The trouble was, as Foccart admits, that Gaullist Interior Ministers – Roger Frey, for example – had exactly the same view of him but always got a flea in the ear when they complained to de Gaulle that Foccart was running a vast secret intelligence net parallel to their own.

Pompidou defeated Poher in the election and Foccart moved back into the Elysée for another five years. Pompidou, who was as thick with Foccart as de Gaulle had been, enjoyed the joke and would introduce him as ‘my spy’ to foreign visitors with a wink and a remark to the effect that Foccart would be ‘watching over’ them during their stay.

Only with Giscard’s election in 1974 was Foccart sent packing. He still refused to speak to the press, published no memoirs and simply disappeared. In 1986 Mitterrand lost the legislative elections and the Gaullist leader, Jacques Chirac, swept back into the Hôtel Matignon as prime minister. Suddenly and sensationally, the figure of Jacques Foccart reappeared: indeed, he was almost the first over the threshold of the Matignon. Most people saw this as a ploy on Chirac’s part. Foccart had been a Resistance hero, a Gaullist since 1940, had plotted parachute raids on the concentration camps, had led de Gaulle’s Rassemblement du Peuple Français after the war: Chirac wanted to highlight the continuity and thus the legitimacy of that Gaullist tradition. But there seems to have been a more practical reason for the visit. Chirac didn’t trust Mitterrand not to spy on him and wanted Foccart’s advice. (The Matignon was duly swept for secret microphones which the Elysée might have placed there.) But Foccart kept his secret and even when Pierre Péan brought out his L’Homme de l’ombre in 1990 (subtitled ‘Jacques Foccart: l’homme le plus mystérieux et le plus puissant de la Ve République’), he made no reply – which is why his decision to go public at last is such a coup d’éclat. He is now 82, but France once again has a Gaullist President and it is entirely likely that we shall see him re-enter the Elysée one final time. As it is, his old assistant, Mme Denise Esnous, had been in the Matignon for the past year working for Balladur.

At last this man of the shadows had decided to unburden himself to a journalist – and this is only the first of two volumes. The result is fascinating and not less so because Foccart presents himself as a genial, modest figure. One isn’t really sure what to make of that. The notion that he was an all-powerful spymaster and dirty-tricks genius he dismisses with a laugh as journalistic fable. His role in the war against the OAS who wanted to assassinate de Gaulle? Algeria was never part of his duties. Poher’s accusations? Overheated, ludicrous. His control over the secret service? Nonsense, he was never in charge of that. His role as de Gaulle’s intelligence chief? How could he help it if his good friends contacted him and told him things which turned out to be useful to the General? You find yourself wondering whether all this might not be true. Or is it just what you would have got out of a particularly polished interview with Allen Dulles, Andropov or M?

Only once is there a glint of real steel, when the subject of Felix Moumié comes up. Moumié was the leader of the UPC, a radical guerrilla movement in one of the most important Francophone states, Cameroon. Passing through Geneva in 1960, Moumié died of poisoning, extremely conveniently for Paris. Journalistic investigation revealed this to have been the work of the Action section of the secret service and most fingers pointed at Foccart. Talking to Gaillard, Foccart refers, almost casually, to Moumié’s ‘execution, if I can call it that’. Gaillard asks him if it’s true that Moumié was eliminated on Foccart’s advice. The reply he gets is, ‘To tell the truth, it wasn’t especially Foccart,’ after which Foccart clams up. Similarly, when asked about the killing of Moumié’s fellow UPC leader, Ruben Um Nyobe, in 1958, all he can say is that French soldiers ‘had certainly not been ordered to kill him’, leaving the impression that he knew what the orders were, might have given them himself, but in any case isn’t talking. Pressed, all he will say is: ‘One day the archives will answer your question.’ You find yourself believing many of his individual disavowals while maintaining a more general distrust. This is, after all, a man who, from 1940 on, was the chief inconditionnel of Gaullism, a man who (like his wife) was decorated for all manner of covert derring-do in the Resistance, and who was willing always to do whatever had to be done in the interests of Gaullist France. Ruthlessness and dissembling were as natural to him as his loyalty to the General.

The great Sixties ‘barons’ of Gaullism – Pompidou, Debré, Couve de Murville, Chaban-Delmas, Messmer (all prime ministers in their time), Guichard and Frey – were only too pleased to be photographed standing alongside the General, but Foccart always looked away or tried to avoid being in the frame. He wasn’t interested in the limelight and had decided early on that being close to de Gaulle was more important than holding elective office. Uniquely among the barons, all of whom were Enarques or polytechniciens, he never even finished his Bac. No one else within the inner circle had such modest origins or came into government from the private sector (he ran an import-export business). This meant, as Foccart proudly pointed out, that he alone never sought promotion from the General. De Gaulle once offered to make him Minister of the Interior – an extremely powerful post in France – but Foccart declined: it would, he said, be more difficult to replace him on the Africa desk than to find someone else for Interior.

Foccart’s contacts with Africa had begun almost straight after the war and when de Gaulle launched his Rassemblement du Peuple Français in 1947 he made Foccart the RPF’s man for Africa and the rest of the overseas territories. This was a post of some significance, for the RPF enjoyed strong support among French officials and settlers, and from the first Foccart’s network was reinforced by the links with the secret service (the SDECE) which he’d established during the war, when he worked for the Gaullist intelligence service. Over the years his network grew to include the whole of the rising black élite, a group with whom he was to enjoy an unrivalled intimacy for nearly thirty years.

Foccart was also pulled in to look after the RPF’s financial affairs, and in 1953 was appointed its deputy secretary-general, taking over as secretary-general the next year. It was a very delicate job, for the movement was in decline and burdened with enormous debts. Yet something had to be saved from the wreckage to provide a springboard for de Gaulle, if he was ever to return to power. Foccart describes how he managed to persuade many of the movement’s creditors to write off its debts, but he never lets slip any hint of the extent to which de Gaulle must have trusted him to give him such a job. Today all the RPF archives are open – save those covering party finance. The reason is not difficult to surmise, for the embarrassing fact, known through disclosures at the Washington end, is that the CIA poured large funds into the anti-Communist RPF at the height of the Cold War, thoroughly compromising de Gaulle’s nationalist and anti-American credentials. At some point in the early Fifties the CIA turned off the tap, doubtless adding to the disorder created by de Gaulle’s general willingness to spend money which had yet to come in. Scandal had to be avoided and the funds somehow conjured up to allow de Gaulle to continue to act the world statesman. Not only did Foccart achieve this but he remained at the General’s side at a time when most Gaullist politicians had vanished into other jobs and other parties. He even travelled abroad with him, establishing the nearest thing possible to an intimate relationship. Once, during shipboard revels, an expansive de Gaulle gave him a long account of the lead-soldier battles he had fought with his two brothers: ‘Xavier took the part of Austria-Hungary, Pierre that of Italy and I, well, of course, I was always France.’

Foccart has often been accused of having helped foment insurrection in Algeria in order to help de Gaulle back to power. This he denies but then, in substance, pretty much concedes, by acknowledging that it was on his instructions that Léon Delbecque was sent to Algiers, there to become the main mover behind the 13 May army coup. Not only that: Foccart stage-managed Operation Resurrection – the planned paratroop landing on Paris – as a way of coercing Fourth Republic politicians to vote de Gaulle back into power.

Foccart was, in fact, the perfect homme de main. When dirty work needed to be done de Gaulle left it to him without ever having to know exactly what his lieutenant was up to. Foccart understood this perfectly and simply ‘arranged’ things. Since it was generally understood that Foccart spoke for de Gaulle, people tended to obey when he uttered – a word from Foccart caused René Capitant to cancel his Presidential bid on the spot. When identity cards were introduced Foccart’s was the only one in France personally signed by de Gaulle: merely brandishing it would open almost any door. Foccart also knew that de Gaulle frequently said the opposite of what he meant so that he could debate the contradiction. When Foccart was offered the leadership of the new Gaullist party, the UNR, de Gaulle said: ‘Very good, it’s a good choice.’ Foccart knew better, knew that de Gaulle would never want a party boss in his office, and so immediately declined. In the quasi-monarchy of the Fifth Republic he could never have more power than by remaining at the monarch’s side.

Foccart had an almost instinctive understanding of the General, something other ministers never achieved, sometimes with comic results. Bernard Cornut-Gentille, the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs (PTT), ambitious to move to a higher post, let it be known that, thanks to his cleansing of the Augean stables, his Ministry now worked perfectly and was thus less and less of a challenge. De Gaulle called him in. ‘From what I hear, the PTT no longer suits you. Fine: I accept your resignation immediately.’ On another occasion, about to greet President Soglo of Dahomey, he exploded with rage: this speech, he said, uses many of the same phrases that I used in welcoming President Maga of Dahomey several years ago. (De Gaulle’s memory was prodigious.) The assistant of Foccart’s who had written the speech was immediately sacked and exiled to Senegal where, in classic style, he went native and ended his days a devout Muslim.

The colonies were what mattered most to de Gaulle. His regret at the French loss of Indochina was exceeded only by his annoyance at seeing the US move in there. When Eisenhower visited Paris in 1959 he actually tapped Ike on the chest as he spoke, so determined was he to make his point: ‘Do not intervene militarily, for if you do you’ll send 50,000, then 300,000 and then 500,000 men. Your problem will then be to work out how on earth to get out – and there will be grave repercussions in your own country. Listen to me,’ he said, tapping harder, ‘don’t go there.’ Foccart remarked on this once Ike had gone. ‘Oh yes, but it’s no use,’ de Gaulle replied. ‘They think that what we did there can’t be compared with what they’re capable of. So they’ll do it. And it will cost them dear.’ From this de Gaulle concluded that France had to do all it could to preserve its position in Africa, and throughout his Presidency he devoted a quite remarkable amount of attention to African affairs, discussing the minutiae of Senegalese or Madagascan politics with Foccart every evening. At the height of the May ’68 Events a remark from Foccart triggered a lecture on the history of Dahomey from de Gaulle. Foccart’s job was to do whatever was necessary – from arranging state visits to arranging coups – to maintain as much of Africa as possible as a domaine réservé of French influence.

The lengths to which France would go to achieve this were staggering. In 1960 when the Belgians abruptly decided to grant independence to the Congo (Zaire), Paris reminded Brussels that under the treaties of 1884 and 1908 France had a pre-emptive right to the Congo in the event of the King of the Belgians renouncing his sovereignty over the area: if Belgium was quitting, France, and not the Congolese, had first right of refusal to the 906,000 square miles of real estate involved. Paris grew indignant as it emerged that Zaire was becoming ‘an American bridgehead’. This, Foccart feels, left France no option but to support Tshombe against Mobutu: after all, France had to establish a presence in Zaire, the largest Francophone nation in Africa. Alas, Mobutu won. ‘It was a victory for the Americans and the Belgians. Mobutu made his top priority denouncing the agreement made with UTA in order to favour Sabena instead.’ For the rest of the world the tragedy of the Congo had one set of meanings; for de Gaulle and Foccart, immersed in a far older tradition of statecraft, the meanings were quite different.

Sometimes the echo is from the 18th century, but sometimes it comes from far further back. When Léopold Senghor expelled the Dominicans from Senegal, the Vatican was outraged. Not so de Gaulle. ‘The General totally approved of Senghor. In Madagascar it was the Jesuits who had fought for independence and got into the habit of plotting ... In Senegal it was the Dominicans.’ For de Gaulle was just as much at home with the idea of disciplining wayward religious orders as Louis XIV would have been. Forced to cut short his visit to Canada in 1967 after he’d enraged Ottawa with his cry of ‘Vive le Québec libre!’, he told Foccart how pleased he was to have pulled the English tail. ‘And,’ he added, ‘I got out of a visit to Ottawa where I would have had to drink a toast to the Queen of England.’ The next year there was trouble in Mauritius. ‘Follow that closely,’ Foccart was ordered. ‘We’re going to take back from the English all they stole from us: Quebec, which is in hand, then Mauritius and then the Anglo-Norman’ – i.e. Channel – ‘Islands’.

The foundation of de Gaulle’s African policy had been laid by accident in 1958 when the Guinean leader, Sékou Touré, had called for a No vote in the General’s referendum and thus opted for independence. Furious at this snub – Touré’s rejection was delivered to the General’s face while he was visiting Conakry – de Gaulle treated Touré as a pariah. (When the Nigerians had the temerity to protest about French nuclear testing in the Sahara, de Gaulle severed diplomatic relations with them for five years.) Foccart believes that the débâcle with Touré, with whom he himself had good relations, could have been avoided had his own attention not been fatally distracted by a frantic phone call from Pompidou in Paris who had learnt of an OAS plot to assassinate de Gaulle in the course of his African tour. Had Foccart had a chance to read Touré’s speech in advance, he is sure he would have been able to amend it and tone it down.

For other Francophone African leaders, Touré’s fate consolidated de Gaulle’s image as the stern father, of whom they were already in awe. Foccart had to explain to Leon Mba of Gabon that it wasn’t practical politics for him to refuse independence and have his country become a French department. He also advised against the new flag which M’ba had had mocked up, showing the French flag in the corner: these things would simply make him a target for African radicals. M’ba reproached Foccart for his lack of patriotism and threw the flag at him in a sulk. Bokassa was so overcome on meeting de Gaulle that he irritated the General by repeatedly calling him ‘Papa’. When de Gaulle told him to stop, Bokassa switched to ‘Pater’.

Some of the exchanges call to mind Frantz Fanon’s biting analysis of the psychology of colonialism. Thus President Ahidjo of Cameroon was almost struck dumb in de Gaulle’s presence and was quite overwhelmed when the General told him that, as a senior leader, he must take care to co-ordinate policy with Senghor and Houphouët-Boigny in the way that de Gaulle had with Roosevelt and Churchill. Ahidjo was so solemn and monosyllabic with him that de Gaulle was amazed to hear from Foccart that he was normally a bright and jolly companion. Houphouët, for his part, would try de Gaulle’s patience with his frequent sojourns in Paris, where he would seek and get two separate Presidential audiences, the second a mere repetition of the one that had taken place a week or two before. The fact was that Houphouët took enormous pleasure in proving to himself, and even more in showing other African leaders, that he alone merited this double contact with the great man. De Gaulle, for his part, would talk to these leaders as if they were schoolboys. Foccart quotes him ticking off President Eyadéma of Togo for eliminating his predecessor. ‘You killed Sylvanus Olympio, which was wrong ... You’ve arrived in power in brutal fashion, so you now have to make yourself accepted and respected. For that you have to be modest and firm’ – which meant getting rid of certain people from his government, showing respect for his seniors like Houphouët and conducting the foreign policy de Gaulle outlined for him. Eyadéma listened hard and did what he was told. De Gaulle let it be known that he took it extremely ill when African Presidents thought of moving into the old French governors’ palaces that dominated their capitals. ‘Where will I stay, then?’ he remarked indignantly, and refused to visit Madagascar after President Tsiranana took over the old governors’ residence in Tananarive.

In all this Foccart was the perfect counsellor, constantly at de Gaulle’s side, briefing him, debriefing him, and arranging for the right consequences to ensue. The backchannel chain ran through Foccart and the SDECE to Jean Fochivé, the director of black Africa’s most effective intelligence network, the Cameroonian SEDOC (Fochivé, a remarkable neo-colonial figure in his own right, is now in his 35th year as Yaounde’s top secret policeman), through Guy Nairay, Houphouët’s chef de cabinet, and Alain Belkiri, Houphouët’s top civil servant. The Ivory Coast was always the main stalking-horse: when Paris decided to reduce Anglo-Saxon influence in West Africa by working to break up Nigeria, Ivory Coast would support Biafra, get others to do so, act as conduit for French arms deliveries and do all the other things that France couldn’t be seen to do. When the radical Massemba-Débat deposed Abbé Youlou as President of Congo-Brazzaville, Foccart arranged Youlou’s escape. For a while de Gaulle humoured Brazzaville’s revolutionary politics – they outraged the Americans in next-door Zaire, so they had their purpose – but by 1966 he tired of it: ‘Let’s cease this comedy and turn off the tap,’ he told Foccart. The inevitable coup against Massemba-Débat followed not long afterwards.

Foccart is quite unapologetic about a level of intervention in African affairs which made a mockery of independence. In 1965 word reached him that M’Ba had cancer. He immediately began a search through the dossiers on each of his ministers to determine who should succeed as President of Gabon. Concluding that the ministers were all hopeless yes-men, his eye fell on M’Ba’s directeur de cabinet, Albert-Bernard Bongo. Bongo was not very well educated and only 30 years old, but he seemed, to Foccart’s headmasterly eye, to have the right character. He apprised M’Ba of his choice and the two men decided it would be wise to test Bongo by sending him off, unwitting, to Paris to have dinner with the Foccarts and an audience with the General. Bongo passed these tests and is still President of Gabon today. Foccart tells Gaillard that he will now phone Bongo and tell him this story so that he shouldn’t learn it for the first time by reading this book. Foccart’s reputation was such that anyone plotting a coup in Francophone Africa was liable to call on him for advice – and a green or red light.

Perhaps the book’s chief surprise is how involved Foccart was in domestic politics. De Gaulle pretended to a grand indifference to party and local politics but it is clear from Foccart’s account that the General was utterly fascinated by them and had a labyrinthine knowledge of local political situations right across France. Foccart used to help draw up the lists of Gaullist party candidatures, maintained complex records of electoral geography and, from time to time, at the General’s behest, quietly stepped in to nudge old warhorses off the party list. As de Gaulle aged, so Foccart and the other Gaullist barons became an increasingly autonomous force. Not long before de Gaulle’s ill-fated referendum of 1969, the Minister of the Interior’s secret polls showed that the General would lose – so he quickly decided to cancel the referendum. Foccart was adamant that this was impossible: de Gaulle must never be seen to retreat. Madame de Gaulle came to see Foccart in distress: ‘You know, even if the Yes vote wins, he’ll never finish his term of office. He feels neither the strength nor the courage for it.’ But de Gaulle did not feel ready to go and put the question of the referendum before the rest of the barons. With one voice they took Foccart’s view. De Gaulle accepted their verdict and was thus pressed on by his own men into the jaws of defeat.

No sooner had de Gaulle resigned than the barons met to decide on the succession, with Pompidou edging out Debré. At which point Foccart concludes this volume, promising us a second. It is unlikely that his account of the internal machinations of Pompidou’s Elysée will quite match the interest of the heroic period of the General. He has given much away here that he long protected from the light, but one feels sure that much is still hidden. He is throughout the cool-headed vizier, the man with no feelings higher than loyalty to his master, no ambition greater than to serve. Yet no one so anonymous could have held his own among the barons, nor could anyone who so frequently exercised the power of life and death be quite so mild as the man here depicted. Foccart has broken his long silence at last but there is a sense in which he keeps his secret still.