Georges Pompidou (1911-1974) was the second president of the French Fifth Republic (1969-1974). He played a major role in solidifying the new system that gave France more than a generation of effective government and economic growth.
There was nothing in Pompidou's early years to suggest a career at the top of French political life. He was born on July 5, 1911, in a small town in central France. His parents were rural school teachers with strong peasant roots. Like many children of teachers, Pompidou aspired to an academic career. In 1931 he entered the prestigious Ecole normale supérieure, and by 1934 he had also passed the aggrégation exam (that qualifies one to teach in universities) and received a diploma from the Ecole libre des sciences politique. The small town boy, grandson of peasants, had joined the French elite.
Pompidou spent the rest of the pre-World War II years teaching, first in Marseilles and then at the noted Parisian Lycée Henri IV. He fought in an infantry regiment in World War II, and after the French defeat in 1940 Pompidou resumed his teaching duties. Quietly, Pompidou worked in the Resistance and became personal secretary to Gen. Charles de Gaulle while he was head of the provisional government between 1944 and 1946.
His relationship with General de Gaulle made it difficult for Pompidou to return to the national bureaucracy or educational system, so he took a position with the Rothschild family bank. For the entire Fourth Republic (1946-1958) and the first years of the Fifth (1958-present), Pompidou worked at establishing his business career while discreetly maintaining ties with de Gaulle and his inner circle. He did not join de Gaulle when he returned to power in 1958, but he did serve as an informal adviser, especially in preparing the new constitution, drafting the economic recovery plan that followed, and establishing contacts with the Algerian revolutionaries.
From Businessman to Prime Minister
Georges Pompidou's formal political career started only in 1962, but it started at the top. President de Gaulle asked for and received the resignation of his first prime minister, Michel Debré. It marked the first time in French history that a president had removed a prime minister and sharpened the hostility between de Gaulle and members of Parliament, who considered it to be their responsibility to determine who served in the cabinet. That hostility mounted when de Gaulle named Pompidou to the prime ministry, since he not only was not a parliamentarian, but had never even run for elective office before. The new prime minister quickly became the main object of that hostility. When President de Gaulle proposed a referendum of questionable legality on the direct election of the president, the members of Parliament had finally had enough and passed a vote of censure (no confidence) in the Pompidou government. But instead of accepting the Pompidou government's resignation, de Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly, provoking legislative elections as well as the controversial referendum. The Gaullists won both handily, returning Pompidou and his cabinet to power with the first firm parliamentary majority in French republican history. Pompidou was to remain at the Palais Matignon until July 1968.
Those were years of tremendous accomplishment for the new republic and its prime minister. Its base of support shifted from the personal popularity of de Gaulle to a firmer foundation in mass approval of the new institutions he created. Pompidou played a critical role in that process in two respects.
First, he was the prime architect of the Gaullist political party that provided the parliamentary majority the government needed. Though the party changed its name from election to election, it quickly became a more disciplined machine than anything the French center or right had seen before. Pompidou and his collaborators began by controlling party nominations for office so that only politicians loyal to the national leadership would end up in Parliament. They also sought local notables—not the ambitious men and women of the Fourth Republic, but individuals willing to subsume their personal goals to the greater needs of the party. In particular, the Gaullists recruited candidates from the Parisian bureaucratic intellectual elite—men like Pompidou himself—who were "parachuted" into districts throughout the country.
Second, Prime Minister Pompidou played an important role in modernizing the French economy. President de Gaulle had come to power again in 1958 vowing to restore French "grandeur." For many, including Pompidou, that meant restructuring the French economy so that it could be competitive in the increasingly interdependent domestic and international markets. The Gaullists used the planning machinery they had helped establish during the liberation years in the mid-1940s. But even more they relied on the powerful but informal network of former bureaucrats who shared their image of a modern France and who dominated both Gaullist and business circles. For most of the 1960s and 1970s France had one of the most dynamic economies of the world, out performing even the West Germans.
From Prime Minister to President
Pompidou's years as prime minister were not trouble free. The government was almost too successful and generated hostility among those who felt they had lost out during the first decade of Gaullist rule. That hostility erupted in May 1968, when a minor student protest turned into a nationwide general strike that almost toppled the regime. No Gaullist leader came out of the "events of May" looking good, but none did better than Pompidou at maintaining order and trying to find a solution. To end the crisis de Gaulle once again dissolved the National Assembly, and the Gaullists once again won a landslide victory at the polls. Pompidou, however, was not named prime minister again. Instead, de Gaulle named the bland diplomat and former foreign minister Maurice Couve de Murville to head the new government, leaving Pompidou "on reserve for the Republic."
Pompidou did not have to wait long. In early 1969 de Gaulle called for a referendum to restructure the largely powerless Senate and local governments. When that referendum was defeated, de Gaulle did what he had threatened to do—he resigned.
Presidential elections were held in June, and Pompidou won an easy victory over the divided leftist and centrist opposition. As president, he continued the broad lines of Gaullist policy, but did so in a seemingly more pragmatic way. Economic growth, spurred by a variety of state policies, continued. The welfare state was expanded to provide more benefits for the working class and the poor. The Gaullist party strengthened its roots, especially in small towns where the old notables frequently still held sway. Only in foreign policy was there much change, as President Pompidou brought France closer to the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and ended French opposition to British entry into the Common Market.
Pompidou's presidency lacked the luster and obvious success of de Gaulle's. Moreover, his accomplishments were limited by the effects of the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries) oil embargo and its implications for all Western economies and by his own increasingly crippling illness, which finally took his life on April 2, 1974. Still, Georges Pompidou will be remembered as a chief architect of the most successful republic France had known, a man who successfully presided over the transition from a charismatic leader to one who had to rely on more normal mechanisms.
Further Reading on Georges Pompidou
As is the case for most French politicians, there are no biographies of Pompidou available in English. For material on his political and economic accomplishments see Jean Charlot, The Gaullist Phenomenon (London, 1971) and John Ardagh, The New French Revolution (1967), respectively.