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Pompidou, Georges (1911–1974)

Leading French politician, Fifth Republic premier (1962–1968), and president (1969–1974). Born in Montboudif in the Auvergne region of south-central France on 1 July 1911, Georges Pompidou attended several lycées before enrolling in the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he graduated first in his class in 1934. He then pursued advanced studies at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques, earning a degree in political science (administration).

Upon fulfilling his required military service, in 1935 Pompidou taught at lycées, first in Marseille and then in Paris. With the advent of war, in 1939 Pompidou was mobilized as an infantry lieutenant. Following the armistice the next year, he returned to teach in Paris. He did not join the Resistance.

General Charles de Gaulle returned to Paris following the liberation of the city in August 1944 and set up his provisional government. A friend helped Pompidou secure a modest post on de Gaulle's staff. In January 1946 when de Gaulle abruptly resigned as provisional president, Pompidou remained in his service. He arranged for publication of the general's wartime memoirs and headed a charity established by the general and his wife for the mentally retarded. Pompidou also became an executive in the Gaullist Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF, Rally of the French People), but in 1953 he advised de Gaulle to disown the movement and remain aloof from politics.

In 1954 Pompidou assumed a post with the Rothschild Bank, becoming a general director two years later. He continued to make himself indispensable to de Gaulle, however. When the political upheaval of May 1958 returned the general to power, Pompidou became his chief of cabinet. Once the transition to the Fifth Republic was completed, Pompidou returned to the Rothschild Bank, but in 1961 de Gaulle charged Pompidou with establishing ties with representatives of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in Switzerland. Secret talks there led in 1962 to a settlement of the Algerian War.

In April 1962 de Gaulle named Pompidou premier of France with jurisdiction over domestic affairs. There was much criticism of this appointment, for Pompidou had never held elective office. Readily accepting the primacy of the president in the new constitutional system, he proved to be an effective administrator and speaker.

The student unrest of May 1968 followed by widespread worker strikes gave Pompidou the chance to demonstrate his political skills. De Gaulle appeared stunned by events, and it was Pompidou who came up with the plan of a wage increase for workers and who managed the new election campaign (dissuading de Gaulle from a referendum) that led to a Gaullist triumph in the subsequent elections.

De Gaulle never forgave Pompidou for his success, and a few days later, in July 1968, asked Pompidou to resign. When he left office, Pompidou had been premier longer than any other Frenchman since François Guizot in the mid-nineteenth century.

At the beginning of 1969, de Gaulle announced a national referendum on a proposal to reorganize France administratively and said that he would regard the referendum as a personal vote of confidence. In April, French voters defeated the proposal by a narrow margin, and de Gaulle promptly resigned. Pompidou ran for the presidency on the Gaullist ticket in the June elections, stressing continuity and openness. Divisions on the Left contributed to his victory.

President Pompidou's leadership style differed greatly from that of de Gaulle. Pompidou proceeded cautiously and deliberately, and he was much more approachable and friendly than his predecessor. There was also great freedom of discussion, and he did not lecture his ministers.

Although he had a solid majority in the National Assembly, Pompidou broadened the government by bringing in non-Gaullists and surrounding himself with competent technocrats. His government devalued the franc and launched an austerity program. It also implemented university reform. The French economy did well until the energy crisis brought on by the Arab oil embargo. This brought high inflation and forced Pompidou to float the franc.

In international affairs, Pompidou believed, like his predecessor, that the president had sole responsibility for foreign policy. He continued de Gaulle's efforts to build relations with China and the Soviet Union and sought to advance French influence in the Middle East. French policy under Pompidou more accurately reflected actual power, and this frequently forced him to compromise. In several areas, he reversed the policies of his predecessor, such as allowing Britain to enter the Common Market and improving relations with the United States.

Pompidou also helped transform the city of Paris. His building projects included an underground shopping center at Les Halles, a new office and shopping complex at La Défense, and the Pompidou Center for contemporary art. (Pompidou was himself a published poet and frequently offered his opinions on art and architecture.) His most controversial building project was the Montparnasse Tower.

Pompidou's last year and a half was marked by economic problems and personal illness. He died of cancer in Paris on 2 April 1974 and was followed in office by his minister of finance, Valéry Giscard d'Éstaing. Pompidou had demonstrated that both Gaullism and the Fifth Republic could continue without the general.

Spencer C. Tucker and Elizabeth Pugliese


Further Reading
Bromberger, Merry. Le Destin secret de Georges Pompidou. Paris: Fayard, 1965.; Derfler, Leslie. President and Parliament: A Short History of the French Presidency. Boca Raton: University Press of Florida, 1983.; Rouusel, Eric. Georges Pompidou. Paris: Jean-Claude Lattès, 1984.
 

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