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?

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