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Dark Knight of the Republic: The Terrifying Monsieur Pasqua

As hatchet man and master of dirty tricks for Charles de Gaulle, Pasqua operated under the ethos that "democracy ends where the interests of the state begin."

It’s a testament to how poorly understood French political life is in North America that the death last June of Charles Pasqua, one of the most important political figures of postwar France, went all but unnoticed outside the hexagon. Testament, too, to Pasqua’s longtime place in the shadows of the masters he served and his own taste for the covert.

“Promises only bind those who believe them.”

As hatchet man and master of dirty tricks for Charles de Gaulle, two-time Interior Minister, anti-terrorist czar, Gaullist baron in his own right, and self-proclaimed conscience for a certain idea of Gaullism, Pasqua’s career traced an incandescent arc across 50 years of French history. To the extent that the epistemologies of state secrecy allow, Pasqua’s life sheds precious light on crucial aspects of contemporary France: the institutional pathologies of the Fifth Republic; the half-century Shakespearean drama that forged today’s French right; the rise of the far right; France’s neocolonial relationships with its former colonies; the politics of police brutality; and France’s long experience of terrorism.

As pure story, Pasqua’s biography is also well worth the detour. Grandson of Corsican shepherds, Resistance fighter at age 15, pastis salesman, shadowy political operative turned Gaullist kingmaker, strong-armed police chief, self-appointed spymaster, political boss of Paris’s western suburbs, fearsome orator and outspoken guardian of French sovereignty, Pasqua always loomed larger than life. It was easy to transform a biography like this into self-serving myth, and Pasqua never lost the occasion, playing his Marseillais accent, plain-speaking gouaille, and sulfurous reputation for all they were worth. His laser-sharp gaze, playful scowl and prominent jowls could have been lifted straight from one of Honoré Daumier’s caricatures of Second Empire notables. In a country whose political elite is largely made up of the hyper-educated, technocratic products of France’s selective higher education institutions, Pasqua stood apart in background and ethos. He was what French journalists call “un bon client” — a dependable source of good copy and colorful anecdote.

The first volume of his memoirs opens in Tunisia (which one guesses was penned in the villa where his son sought refuge from French judges investigating corporate malfeasance): “The wind blows on the eucalyptus; the leaves and bark of the trees heated by the sun exhale scents and aromas that remind me of Corsica.” If such overblown prose represents nothing more than bad writing under the pens of most autobiography-minded elder statesmen, for Pasqua, the purple works. His life was like a dime-store novel.

Pasqua was born in 1927 in the Provençal town of Grasse, where his parents, like so many Corsicans fleeing the island’s poverty for the continent, had found work, his father as a policeman and his mother in the local perfume industry. His father joined the Resistance early in the war, commandeering police resources to produce fake identity cards; Pasqua himself quit school to take to the maquis in 1942. After the Liberation, Pasqua found work with Paul Ricard, a frustrated painter who built an alcoholic beverage empire atop a pastis recipe of his own concoction. Pasqua, who always cited Ricard along with De Gaulle as his mentors, rose to number two in the company in 1967, before leaving to launch his own liquor import firm.

But Pasqua’s true vocation was politics, not pastis. Under De Gaulle’s spell since the war, Pasqua was an active member of the postwar Gaullist movement from its inception. With De Gaulle’s return to power in 1958, Pasqua helped Jacques Foccart (the greatest of all the great men of the Gaullist shadows) create the Service d’Action Civique (SAC), a private praetorian guard in the General’s beck and call. An unlikely mix of policemen, intelligence officers, Gaullist militants and gangsters rubbed shoulders in this underground paramilitary force, roughing up communists, breaking picket lines, clashing with Corsican nationalists, gathering information on political opponents, and cultivating links with mobsters and drug traffickers. As its vice president, Pasqua mobilized the SAC during the May 1968 student revolt, putting several hundred thousand demonstrators onto the Champs-Élysées in a counter-protest that helped restore public confidence in a vacillating De Gaulle.

Graduating from henchman to power broker, Pasqua played a decisive part in the brutal wars of succession that wracked the Gaullist movement after De Gaulle’s death in 1970. Looking back on nearly four decades of internecine betrayals to which he had contributed much, and to which he would ultimately fall victim, Pasqua dubbed the Gaullist camp a latter-day House of Atreus.

An ambitious young Gaullist named Jacques Chirac drew first blood during the 1974 presidential elections. Leading an insurgency against the dashing Resistance hero and leader of the Gaullist left wing Jacques Chaban-Delmas, Chirac instead endorsed the centrist party’s candidate Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Astutely reading the political tea leaves, Pasqua threw his political weight behind Chirac, whom the victorious Giscard named Prime Minister as reward for his support. Pasqua engineered Chirac’s takeover of the Gaullist party, retooled it as a modern vehicle dedicated to conveying Chirac to the Élysée, and renamed it the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), all the while fixing his own tight grip on its machinery.

To free Chirac to organize his presidential campaign, they manufactured a political disagreement with Giscard to allow Chirac to resign from the cabinet. To endow him with a power base, Pasqua then helped Chirac win election as mayor of Paris in 1977, which they methodically transformed into a lucrative RPR machine. After Chirac’s elimination in the 1981 presidential election’s first round, they discreetly called on RPR voters to cast their second-round ballots in favor of the Socialist, François Mitterrand, in order to clear Giscard from Chirac’s path to power seven years later. Ever the Banquo, Pasqua reportedly took Socialist Party funds in exchange for distributing 150,000 pro-Mitterrand tracts.

Disappointed by Chirac’s unsuccessful 1988 presidential campaign and his variable ideological geometry, and disillusioned by what Pasqua saw as the RPR’s betrayal of its Gaullist identity, notably its embrace of the European Community, Pasqua broke with his protégé in 1990. After the RPR returned to power in 1993, with Édouard Balladur as prime minister, Pasqua supported Balladur in his struggle to wrest the party from Chirac. Chirac’s victory over Balladur in the fratricidal 1995 presidential elections compromised Pasqua’s own future within the party he had himself built.

Quitting the RPR, Pasqua launched his own sovereigntist party, winning 13 percent in the 1999 European elections (bettering the RPR’s list led by a young Nicolas Sarkozy). Pasqua also began preparing his own run for the 2002 presidential elections. He knew he had no chance of winning, but he was determined to fly the Gaullist flag and draw enough votes away from Chirac to rob him of reelection. But Chirac had learned much from his teacher, and turned the Élysées’s considerable resources against his rival: Pasqua never obtained the 500 elected officials’ signatures necessary to have his candidacy certified; worse, he faced a battery of increasingly inquisitive judges investigating corruption charges.

Alongside his grand national ambitions, Pasqua never forgot the first rule of French politics: act local. Pasqua won his first elected office in the parliamentary elections held immediately after May 1968, as deputy of a western Paris suburb, and it is here, in the Hauts-de-Seine, that he built a formidable local power base of his own. As president of the department’s conseil général from 1973 and 1976, and again from 1988 and 2004, he mixed old-fashioned machine politics, prodigious patronage, judiciously targeted slush, and grandiose public works to enfeoff the local political class and burnish his leadership credentials. “The Hauts-de-Seine,” Pasqua liked to say in his characteristic mix of irony, humor and candor, “are my own little Koweit”.

Taking full advantage of the resources of the richest department in France after Paris, “the godfather of the Hauts-de-Seine” expanded public services, made rain for real estate developers, gave one of Mitterrand’s favored architects Roland Castro free rein to renovate the department’s public housing, and broke ground on a new university which is today derisively referred to as Pasqua University. Pasqua transformed the department into a hothouse for RPR cadres, a training ground for a veritable rogues gallery of Gaullist leaders known as the Pasqua Boys. Patrick Devedjian, who as a student gravitated in the far-right and beat up gauchistes before settling down as Pasqua’s lawyer, local elected official, and in multiple cabinet posts under Chirac and Sarkozy, today presides the conseil général.

Patrick and Isabelle Balkany’s nearly 30-year reign of ostentatious self-enrichment in Levallois-Perret may soon be brought to a close by the courts. Most famously, Nicolas Sarkozy, who at 28 defeated Pasqua in the 1983 Neuilly mayoral election, later succeeded Pasqua at the head of the conseil général. It was here, in this well-heeled suburban nest of Gaullist vipers, that Sarkozy cut his political teeth and coopted the clientèles that helped carry him to the presidency.

Twice minister of the Interior (1986-88, 1993-95), Pasqua cultivated an image as a tough, uncompromising police chief. For all his protestations of social Gaullism, his hard-line policies betray a deeply conservative vision of the social order. He called for the restoration of the death penalty, recently abolished by Mitterrand. In what are still known as the “Pasqua Laws”, he tightened immigration law and made it more difficult for children of immigrants born in France to obtain French citizenship. During student protests against a university reform in 1986, a truncheon-wielding motorcycle police unit which Pasqua had revived to clear streets after political demonstrations, killed Malik Oussekine, a student returning home from a concert. Oussekine’s death remains a potent symbol of police violence in France today, and its memory has haunted governments faced with street protests ever since, functioning as a tacit brake on police repression.

As minister of the Interior, Pasqua faced a violent wave of terrorist attacks, including the rue de Rennes bombing, thought to be the work of Lebanese Hezbollah, the homegrown anarcho-communist Action Directe group’s assassination of Renault’s president, both in 1986, and the 1994 hijacking of an Air France Algiers-Paris flight by the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armée. Pasqua seized these opportunities to style himself a formidable antiterrorist-in-chief, famously declaring “We must terrorize the terrorists.” Reorganizing France’s anti-terrorist services, he erected the legislative and law enforcement architecture that has governed antiterrorist efforts in France ever since.

Pasqua thought and acted globally, too. He ran a full-blown parallel diplomacy out of the Hauts-de-Seine and the Ministry of the Interior for decades, cultivating his own network of shadowy interlocutors across Africa and the Middle East, many drawn from the Corsican diaspora working in casinos, construction, or the orbit of the Elf-Aquitaine petroleum empire in West Africa. He channeled substantial funds from the Hauts-de-Seine (officially, one percent of the department’s annual budget) into so-called development projects in Africa, notably in oil-rich and democracy-poor Gabon. In the ’90s, without Defense or Foreign Ministry knowledge, he brokered a major arms sale to Angola president José Eduardo Dos Santos during his country’s civil war against American-supported UNITA. Pasqua short-circuited formal diplomatic circuits and France’s intelligence services to negotiate directly with Iran and Hezbollah the release of French hostages in Beirut in 1988.

While Pasqua’s cowboy statecraft put him in constant conflict with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it also perpetuated a dubious Gaullist tradition. Pasqua’s old SAC colleague Jacques Foccart, who had used cash, military support, and personal relationships to co-opt local leaders and maintain France’s hold over its former African colonies after independence. Carrying on Foccart’s methods, Pasqua made himself a linchpin of France’s postcolonial web of influence known as Françafrique. Pasqua was happy to shower patronizing benevolence on corrupt and authoritarian regimes, as long as they promoted the interests of France and Pasqua’s own people. “It’s thanks to him that I came to understand and penetrate the African soul,” wrote Pasqua of Gabon’s strongman Omar Bongo.

Pasqua’s twilight proved a prolonged and pathetic calvary, as he found himself consumed by the very methods and enmities that had long served him so well. With Chirac’s presidential benediction, Pasqua and many associates stood trial on a succession of malfeasance charges, most spectacularly in the Angola arms sale scandal known as Angolagate. Viewed as a kind of J. Edgar Hoover à la française, it had always been assumed that Pasqua had put the Interior Ministry, his personal informants and his underworld connections to good use collecting sensitive information on his rivals that could be exhumed at opportune moments — a reputation which Pasqua did his best to cultivate. “Better to be taken for a gangster than a jerk,” he always liked to say. France’s political elite held its collective breath in November 2009 when, after being sentenced to a three year prison term in the Angolagate affair (overturned on appeal), Pasqua called a press conference and threatened thunderous “revelations” that would “refresh Chirac’s memory” and “make a certain number of figures of the Republic tremble”. Yet no revelations ever came. Even the state’s secret archives may never answer why Pasqua kept quiet: did Chirac simply outmaneuver him? or was Pasqua, in the end, more bluff than bite?

Pasqua’s career was traversed by such paradoxes. Here was a staunch proponent of the Gaullist ideal that true statesmen should stay above the sordid fray of party politics who was himself a sophisticated practitioner of partisan combat. Pasqua used every trick in the partisan politics book to gain an edge, famously redrawing the electoral map in 1986 in a masterpiece of self-interested gerrymandering that heavily favored the Gaullist party up until 2012. While he spoke of “terrorizing the terrorists” — a slogan that would have made George W. Bush and Dick Cheney proud — Pasqua in fact favored back-channel diplomacy, and when French agents captured the terrorist Carlos in Sudan in 1994, they spirited him not to a black site, but to France to stand trial. This resolute man of the right held his camp’s champion Chirac in contempt and Mitterrand in high regard (the admiration was apparently mutual: they regularly met for secret luncheons in the early 1990s, and Mitterrand, who feared no one, affectionately referred to him “that terrifying Monsieur Pasqua”).

In retrospect, it’s hard not to feel a certain affection for Pasqua. His courageous choice to fight Nazism commands respect. Jean-Marc Sauvé, the left-wing director of civil liberties whom Pasqua kept on when he returned to the Interior Ministry in the ’90s, and who convinced him to abandon his proposal to close the immigration door to relatives of foreigners already settled in France, recalled, “Of all the ministers whom I served under, he was the most sympathetic.” One can but cheer for a minister of the Interior who, when his services discovered that US intelligence was hacking into government communications systems and trying to recruit spies from among the Prime Minister’s staff, immediately expelled five American diplomats, including the CIA station chief in Paris (in contrast, current president François Hollande didn’t budge when the details of NSA surveillance in France were revealed). Pasqua also championed Gaullism’s social wing, offering far-sighted diagnoses of the European Union as a vehicle for neoliberalism and defenses of the welfare state, inspiring the ever-mischievous Chirac to dub him “the mother Theresa of the RPR”.

The negative side of Pasqua’s political balance sheet, however, is long indeed. He summed up the self-interested cynicism with which he pursued politics in a phrase that tidily encapsulates three unhappy decades of French political life: “promises only bind those who believe them.” His public action’s legal and ethical failings hold pride of place in a crowded pantheon of corruption scandals. Authority, order and raison d’État meant more to him than representative politics.

Interviewed on television in 1987, the then-Interior minister articulated the credo he lived by: “democracy ends where the interests of the state begin.” Though he always proclaimed himself an intractable opponent of the far-right, his actions point to a more ambiguous reality. He provided technical assistance to Silvio Berlusconi during his rise to power in Italy. He brokered a secret meeting between Chirac and the leader of the far-right Front National Jean-Marie Le Pen in between the two rounds of the 1986 legislative elections, and trumpeted to the press that: “There are surely a few extremists in the National Front, but for everything essential they share the same preoccupations, the same values as we do.” In 1988, Pasqua again offered Le Pen a helping hand, insuring he received the 500 signatures necessary to run for president, and underscoring once again the right’s and far-right’s “shared values”. His career fed a growing sentiment that there is something rotten about politics in the Fifth Republic, paving the way for the steady legitimation of the Front National that represents the most troubling feature of the French political landscape today.

Little wonder French politicians weren’t sure how to react to Pasqua’s death. The hexagon’s political elite were on hand at Saint-Louis-des-Invalides for Pasqua’s funeral mass with full military honors, with one puzzling exception: Sarkozy, today at the head of the RPR’s successor party and plotting his own return to the presidency in 2017, was immortalized by a photographer cycling near his pop-star wife Carla Bruni’s villa on the Côte d’Azur. Perhaps Sarkozy wanted to distance himself from the turpitudes of his own Hauts-de-Seine origins; or perhaps this was simply another example of Sarkozy’s chronic political tone deafness. His absence inspired a top figure in his party to remark, “For someone who wants to unite his camp, this is an unforgivable political sin.” (Scrambling to limit the political damage, Sarkozy attended Pasqua’s burial in Grasse).

More troubling was reaction on the other side of the political spectrum. From the Pasqua Laws to Oussekine’s death, Pasqua had always provided everyone on the left a consensual reminder of what set them apart from the right, a focal point around which they could articulate a progressive politics. When the right stood to applaud Pasqua’s memory in the National Assembly, Socialist, Green and Communist deputies predictably kept to their seats. Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls then rose, exhorting his Socialist caucus to stand, too.

The palpable malaise pointed not just to Pasqua’s ambiguous legacy, but to a broader crisis of political identity within the Socialist Party. Valls, like Pasqua and Sarkozy before him, used his time as Minister of the Interior to posture as an aggressive police chief. As Prime Minister, Valls has presided a rollback of civil liberties in the name of combating terrorism together with employer-friendly labor law reforms. The government’s heavy-handed repression of political protest appears to herald an unsettling return to older, more violent forms of policing. That the French Socialist Party chose to forget the hard lessons of the Pasqua years will not reassure anyone who is worried by the current state of Western Europe’s establishment left-wing parties.