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Letters from Paris: ‘Death of a President’

The Croft Magazine // With the current mood in Paris being a quietly sombre one, Xander Brett reflects on the life and sombre end of French President Georges Pompidou in the second of his 'Letters from Paris' series.

By Xander Brett, Third Year, History of Art and French

The Croft Magazine // With the current mood in Paris being a quietly sombre one, Xander Brett reflects on the life and sombre end of French President Georges Pompidou in the second of his 'Letters from Paris' series.

27th September, 2020

You join me on a Friday because I’ll be spending the weekend with my grandparents in the Gers. And you join me as fearful events unfold. There’s been another terrorist attack in the city, at the site of Charlie Hebdo’s former offices. It’s been a sad week for the French. Juliette Gréco: the signer, the actress and the quintessential French poétesse, died on Wednesday. Her death is something both the French and I were sad to learn, though, of course, her music rests eternal. For the French, Juliette Gréco exemplified the idea of Paris as a romantic jewel. For me, and for the English, she was all we imagine this city to be. A year ago, television and radio stations were interrupted by an announcement to the French that their former head of state, Jacques Chirac, had died. Deaths like Gréco’s sadden a nation. Events like today’s shock them. Deaths like Chirac’s halt their daily life. The death of a head of state is, naturally, so much harder when that individual is still in office. In monarchies, that’s compulsory. In a republic, it's, thankfully, much rarer.

Just a block away from me, looking across the river, staring over the ghostly silhouette of the statue of Sainte Geneviève, there lies a shuttered apartment block. ‘Here,’ reads a plaque on its wall, ‘died the former President of the Republic M. Georges Pompidou.’ Such is the cool stillness of this street; it seems those shutters have stayed closed since they hid his body from the world. To visit the sites of terrorist attacks, though emotionally much harder, is to feel the same stillness. By pure coincidence, I visited both the former Charlie Hebdo offices and the Bataclan concert hall just yesterday. At the site of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, though the tributes – both official and unofficial – remain, there’s that same stillness. A memorial reads the names of the victims, the square has been renamed ‘Place of Freedom of Expression’ and, on the door, a sign states that ‘for obvious security reasons, you must wait to be buzzed in.’ At the Bataclan, the bullet holes remind us of the panic, but there’s the same eerie cool.

Jardin du Luxembourg | Xander Brett / Epigram

Georges Pompidou was moved out of the Élysée in the winter of 1973, placed on life support with his engagements cancelled. Officially, he was suffering from fevers. Unofficially, he was back home either to survive or die. On 7th February, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, his doctor signed an official communication detailing the health of the president. It stated that he suffered from intermittent haemorrhages and venal problems. Pompidou’s death, at 9 pm on 2nd April, was announced later that night. The President of the Senate, Alain Poher, for a second time, took control as interim president. When the French awoke next morning, the mourners at the scene gave an air of curiosity, rather than sadness. For their president to have died like this, without a resignation, and to have allowed them to go without leadership, was arrogant in the extreme.

Years after his death, Pompidou’s doctor would admit that his patient had been suffering from Waldenström’s disease since at least 1968. He would have known very well he was ill during his accession to the presidency. It’s not known for how long the French authorities kept the president’s condition secret or if indeed they did at all. In any case, his condition was of immense interest to the Americans, and the CIA were investigating his condition long before the rest of the world was aware. During a trip to Reykjavik in June 1973, the CIA took samples of his urine to better understand his condition. By then, Pompidou’s vision was on the decline and he’d delegated all but foreign affairs to his prime minister and chief of staff. His weight increased, and he’d been rendered balloon-like. After meeting him for the final time, President Nixon confided to his entourage that he ‘won’t last long.’

Like Kennedy, who couldn’t know of his fate, Pompidou’s time at the helm was too short for his legacy to show through. The Pompidou Centre – that vast monument of Parisian contemporary art – stands as a monument to his life, not only as a politician but as an artist. Pompidou’s death, and the people's disappointment at its handling, would change the way presidents handled transparency. President Mitterrand released regular health bulletins during his campaign. He knew – and admitted – his own demise, arranging a ‘last supper’ just days before his death. It included delicacies such as a small songbird. A more French ending, you couldn’t imagine.

Featured Image: Epigram / Xander Brett

Listen to Xander's weekly Burst Radio podcast 'Letters from Paris'.