Jacques Chaban Delmas

(b. 1915)

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(b. Paris, 1 Mar. 1915; d. Paris, 10 Nov. 2000)

French; Prime Minister 1969–72, Mayor of Bordeaux 1947–95 Jacques Delmas (the Chaban was his wartime alias) was born to a middle-class family. He was educated at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques, which he detested, and managed on his second attempt to enter the Finance Inspectorate, an élite division of the higher civil service. His good Resistance record, his charm, and his energy were valuable political assets which he, like his friend Mitterrand, exploited to the full. He chose the south-west town of Bordeaux as the site for his ambitions, becoming its deputy in 1946 and its mayor the following year. Over the next thirty years he constructed an impregnable power base in Bordeaux and the surrounding region, based on clientelism and the judicious construction of personal alliances which transcended party barriers. In the Fourth Republic he demonstrated the flexibility which became his trademark by combining ministerial office with active, if discreet, participation in the plots which led to the return to power of de Gaulle in 1958. The following year he was elected president of a National Assembly whose powers had been greatly reduced by the new constitution and which he turned into a reliable auxiliary of the new political order. Yet at the same time he cultivated a reformist image by advocating a ‘new society’ which would end the rigidities of France's social and political institutions. It was this which made him so attractive a figure to the Gaullist high command in the dangerous political climate produced by the 1968 events. Pompidou, de Gaulle's successor as President, thus appointed him Prime Minister in 1969. As Prime Minister Chaban tried to institutionalize the ‘new society’ by liberalizing the state-run broadcasting system and strengthening trade union rights in the public sector. The problem with his reformism was that it made no impact on the left, alienated the powerful right-wing faction in the Gaullist Party, and increasingly irritated President Pompidou, whose private office waged merciless war on him. By 1972 he was under fire in the press for his personal tax arrangements which, though legal, hardly fitted in with his claim to want a more socially just France. The botched referendum on British membership of the EEC, and an injudicious attempt to shore up his position by obtaining a parliamentary vote of confidence, sealed his fate. In June 1972, in a brutal demonstration of presidential power, Pompidou sacked him.

Out of office, Chaban mended his fences with the Gaullist Party and prepared for the next presidential contest which, in view of Pompidou's incurable illness, was likely to come soon. The 1974 election, however, proved to be a disaster. He announced his candidature before Pompidou was in his grave, performed badly on television, and could not shake off the tax story or the rumours about his private life. Faced with the smooth reformism of his rival conservative candidate Giscard d'Estaing and the implacable hostility of Pompidou's protégé, Chirac, who held the key post of Interior Minister, his campaign disintegrated. The erstwhile prophet of the new society found his support limited to the Gaullist old guard. On round one he was eliminated with only 15 per cent of the vote. His presidential ambitions were over. Yet Chaban remained a prominent political figure. His Bordeaux fiefdom was untouched by the defeat and he continued to nurse dreams of returning to the premiership, dreams which, in the changed politics of the mid-1980s, might have come true. His real strength was as a manager of the National Assembly, whose president he became in 1978 and again in 1986. By the 1990s there were signs that the Bordeaux political machine which he had controlled for so long was starting to break down and he did not stand in the 1995 municipal elections.


Subjects: Politics.

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