(b. Réunion, 12 Apr. 1924; d. Paris, 25 Aug. 2007)
French; Prime Minister 1976–81, Presidential candidate 1988 Barre was born in the Indian Ocean island of Réunion and his early years were traumatized by the bankruptcy and imprisonment of his father. He studied economics at Paris, entered the University, and was the author of a best selling textbook on macroeconomics. In 1967 he was plucked from obscurity by de Gaulle to become one of France's two commissioners in the European Community. He first acquired prominence in November 1968 when he provided de Gaulle with the arguments to prevent the devaluation of the franc which virtually everybody else, in the aftermath of the May 1968 events, believed to be necessary. After leaving the European Commission, he returned to academic life before being invited by President Giscard d'Estaing to join the government headed by Jacques Chirac in 1976. When Chirac took the unprecedented step, in the Fifth Republic, of walking out, Barre took over as Prime Minister. Giscard had in mind his high professional reputation, (‘the best economist in France’), his solid administrative competence, his apparent absence of political ambition, and his image as a prudent technician. He looked in every sense to be the antithesis of the aggressive, and unreliable, Chirac. As Prime Minister, Barre embarked on a policy of sound money and high taxation in order to control France's propensity to inflation; he also made tentative steps to limit economic dirigisme, by decontrolling some prices. His government was relatively successful in moderating the worst effects of the late 1970s recession. Yet he found his political authority constantly under challenge not only from the left-wing opposition headed by Mitterrand but also from the neo-Gaullist RPR which Chirac had founded in order to further his presidential ambitions. By attacking Barre, Chirac hoped to destabilize Giscard. In 1981, the strategy paid off—Giscard was defeated by the Socialist Mitterrand in the presidential election.
As Prime Minister Barre had endured dreadful opinion poll ratings. In opposition, however, his political stock rose fast. Once the initial euphoria of the left's victory had worn off and the failings of the Mauroy government became obvious, he was able to draw the dividends of his image of calm authority and economic competence—less unstable than Chirac, more human than Giscard. By the mid-1980s polls regularly identified him as the most popular right-wing political leader, and he stood for the presidency in 1988. His 1988 election campaign was, however, widely regarded as a disaster. He lacked a reliable party base to counter Chirac's RPR, his professorial self satisfaction infuriated younger politicians, his campaigning style seemed curiously casual. He was eliminated in round one, with 16.52 per cent of the vote.
Barre's self assurance was unaffected by defeat. He continued to deliver weighty pronouncements on the state of the nation and to stand ostentatiously aloof from the frantic politicking of the French right. His isolation contributed to his popularity, but also made the hopes he nurtured of a presidential comeback illusory. He withdrew from the pre-campaign for the 1995 presidential election when it became clear that he lacked any solid support. He compensated for his loss of a national destiny by becoming, like many of the politicians whom he affected to despise, a big city baron. In 1995 he was elected mayor of Lyons, France's second city, completing his term in 2001.