Michel Debré


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(b. Paris, 15 Jan. 1912; d. Montlouis-sur-Loire, 2 Aug. 1996)

French; Prime Minister 1959–62, Presidential candidate 1981 Michel Debré was the son of a prominent and high-minded medical professor. Educated at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques, he joined the prestigious Conseil d'État in 1938, served in the private office of the independent-minded finance minister, Reynaud, and fought in the disastrous military campaign of 1940. After a brief period working for General Weygand, who had supported the creation of the Vichy regime, he joined the Resistance, where he developed the passion for the issues of constitutional and administrative reform which would dominate his career. At the Liberation he was appointed prefect for the Angers region and in 1945 joined de Gaulle's private office, where he drew up the plans for the École Nationale d'Administration, which became famous as the nursery for France's administrative and political élite. He became a dedicated supporter of de Gaulle, and a vehement critic of the political system of the Fourth Republic which he denounced in a celebrated pamphlet ‘Ces princes qui nous gouvernent’.

As Minister of Justice in the government de Gaulle formed in June 1958, Debré played a central role in the drafting of the constitution of the Fifth Republic. In January 1959 he became first Prime Minister of the new regime. A compulsive reformer, he used his term of office to start the process of adapting French agriculture and industry to the Common Market and to put an end to the long conflict over state financing of private education. His modernization mania did not, however, extend across the Mediterranean and he experienced much torment over de Gaulle's increasing determination to lance the boil of the Algerian War by conceding independence to the provisional government of the Algerian Republic. Loyalty to de Gaulle won out, and he did not resign until the peace negotiations were near completion. After a short period in the political wilderness, he returned to government in 1966 as Minister of Economy and Finances and showed characteristic determination (and, critics said, lack of political judgement) in introducing the tough social security measures which helped provoke the mass demonstrations of May 1968. After Pompidou's election as President in 1969, he took the Defence portfolio, which he held until 1973, his presence guaranteeing the continuity of de Gaulle's strategic vision. He never again held office, but in 1981 stood for the presidency on a programme of fidelity to the legacy of Gaullism. By this time, however, Chirac had won control of the Gaullist party machine and Debré obtained only 1.6 per cent of the vote. He withdrew progressively from national politics and wrote a well-received four-volume autobiography.

Debré lacked the skills of the successful politician and his tense, interfering manner annoyed many of his governmental colleagues, including, on occasion, de Gaulle. Yet he played a central role in the creation not only of the Fifth Republic constitution but of the post-war French State. Though his nationalism and statism made him a somewhat archaic figure by the end of his career, he is recognized as one of the most distinguished of France's twentieth-century statesmen.


Subjects: Politics.

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