Global elite’s favourite French politician
By David Buchan
Published: August 26 2007 13:59 | Last updated: August 26 2007 13:59
Raymond Barre, who died on Saturday at the age of 83, was the favourite French politician of the world's financial and business elite, where the rotund Mr Barre was a familiar and well-liked figure.
Rare for a Frenchman, he was a strong believer in liberal economics and in the inescapability, even desirability, of market forces. Above all, he was an internationalist, a member of the shadowy Trilateral Commission bringing together luminaries from Europe, the US and Japan and, for many years after he ceased being prime minister, the main rapporteur of the Davos World Economic Forum.
In such ways, he stayed abreast of trends outside France, trends which he remained determined that his countrymen should move with.
The essential achievement of his premiership (1976-81) was to have provided France with enough economic stability – in a period rocked by rising unemployment, inflationary pressures, steel plant closures and the second oil price shock – for it to become a durable member of the European monetary system created in 1979.
In a sense, too, “Barrism", which became synonymous with his style of straight talking about the need for sound economic management, laid the ground for the austerity policies which the Socialists adopted after 1983.
Barre undoubtedly had an influence in internationalising the outlook of his countrymen, but his impact on the political class was to some extent limited by the fact that he was essentially a non-party man. It was as a technocratic economist that General de Gaulle nominated him to the European Commission in 1967 and that Giscard nominated him prime minister in 1976.
Two years later, Barre won – and subsequently retained at successive elections – a parliamentary seat in Lyon, but he sat in the National Assembly as an “affiliated” or semi-detached member of the UDF centre-right federation. He never sought a party label for his presidential bid in 1988 and again when he flirted with a bid in 1995. Instead he argued in true Gaullist style that presidential elections were an affair between a man and the people, into which parties should not interpose themselves.
Born in France's Indian Ocean territory of Réunion on April 12 1924, Barre spent all his youth there. The second world war postponed his arrival in France until 1946. Attending the Institut des Etudes Politiques in Paris, he found his life-long métier of economics. He went on to become a professor of economics first in Tunis, then at Caen and finally back in Paris.It was in 1954, while he was teaching, that he married Eve Hegedus. The couple had two sons.
Barre's first brush with politics came in 1959 when he joined the cabinet of Jean-Marcel Jeanneney, the trade and industry minister whom he had met the year before on a trip to the Soviet Union to study central planning. He stayed three years, then went back to teaching, though he also tried his hand at a rather different kind of planning at the think-tank of the Commissariat du Plan.
It was a surprise to Barre when, in 1967, de Gaulle asked him to go to the European Commission, where he served as vice president responsible for economic and monetary affairs until 1972.
In France he was quick to see the economic consequences of the “events” of May 1968, with wage rises fuelling inflation, but applauded the general's refusal to countenance a devaluation that eventually came only after de Gaulle resigned in mid-1969. For Barre, easy ways out, such as devaluations, were always to be avoided.
In Brussels, Barre was responsible for various reports on the scaling down of Britain's sterling balances in the run-up to its entry into the Community, and on ways of implementing the Community's first and failed commitment, in 1969, to monetary union within a decade.
He produced a plan to reduce exchange rate fluctuations progressively so that they could be irrevocably locked together sometime in 1976-78. By then the world had changed, and Barre was prime minister. Yet he always claimed that Brussels profited him. “I would never have comfortably filled my role as prime minister without the experience of Brussels", he said after he left the Matignon. It gave him the ability to see the outsider's view of France and the French that never left him.
After another spell teaching and travelling, Barre was asked by the new president, Giscard d‘Estaing, to be his “sherpa” in preparing for the first western economic summit at Rambouillet in 1975. In January the next year, Giscard brought him into the government as trade minister. By August he had named him prime minister to take over from Jacques Chirac, who resigned in a huff.
Introducing him to a somewhat surprised France, Giscard described his new premier as “the best economist in France”, the man the country needed to pull it out of rising unemployment and inflation.
Barre set to work with a will. As well as the Matignon, he took the finance ministry, a practice that had been common in the Fourth Republic but not since and kept it until handing it to Réné Monory in 1978.
In September came the first of the famous “Barre plans”, with a three-month price freeze and a partial salary freeze. By spring 1977, however, unemployment had passed one million for the first time. Another Barre plan in April started the long effort to shift the cost of the French welfare state from company payrolls onto the state budget. Barre reduced welfare charges for young workers and apprentices in an effort to persuade employers to hire more of them.
By autumn 1977, Barrism was beginning to bear some fruit. September was the first month to show a trade surplus for two years, unemployment stabilised at around the one million level, and annual inflation dropped out of double figures.
At the same time, the prospect of the Barre government losing to the left in the 1978 parliamentary elections evaporated as the extravagance of the Communist party's economic demands ruptured its “Union of the Left” with the Socialists. The Barre government retained its majority, and the prime minister was elected in Lyon. The place, Barre said, suited him because it was a pro-European, economically-important university city. He was later to become Mayor of Lyons from 1995 to 2001, and only retired as a deputy for the city at the 2002 parliamentary elections.
After the 1978 elections Barre was keen to give rein to his liberalising beliefs. He freed producer prices. But hopes of economic recovery were dashed in 1979, which Barre described as his worst year. There was a 35 per cent rise in France's oil bill. But he also had to cope with tremendous upheaval, closures and protests in the steel industry, while getting less and less political help from the Gaullist party of Jacques Chirac, who was already positioning himself to run in the 1981 presidential election.
Barre reacted with his usual austerity medicine, which had benefited the government's finances but not its popularity. The result was that while between 1976 and 1980 the budget deficit was brought down to just one per cent of gross domestic product and the social security system edged into the black, voters saw their purchasing power increase by only one per cent. “I never sacrificed France to the French”, Barre was later to claim proudly. But by the time he had narrowly lost to François Mitterrand in 1981, Giscard came to attribute his defeat in part to Barre's defence of “France”.
Ousted from the Matignon, Barre at least had the satisfaction of increasing his own majority in his Lyon seat, and went back to his various freelance activities.
Although he may have drawn satisfaction from Socialist adoption of Barrist policies after 1983, he did not show it. Indeed, among opposition politicians, he became the staunchest conservative opponent of any “cohabitation” with President Mitterrand, which he described as a trap. Chirac, for whose political intelligence he never had much regard, ignored his warning and fell into the trap by becoming prime minister again between 1986-88 and then losing to Mitterrand once more in 1988.
Barre himself contested the 1988 election. He fought as the straightforward economic liberal that he was, campaigning almost as much against the Chirac-Balladur record of rigging privatisations by assembling groups of friendly shareholders and of tinkering with an inadequate tax system as against Mitterrand. But he came third with 16.5 per cent of the vote, behind Mitterrand and Chirac and therefore out of the final run-off.
Even then, however, Barre did not seem quite cured of the presidential bug. Lecturing the country through his newsletter characteristically called “Facts and Arguments", he continued to position himself for a possible second run at the Elysée in 1995. For a time, his chances looked quite good, at least until his natural supporters in the UDF, in particular its CDS centrist component, threw in their lot in with Balladur. So, in the end, he decided not to run.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007